110 – Depicting Manipulative Characters

The Mythcreant Podcast

Aha! You’re listening to this podcast, just as we always knew you would from all the subtle queues we’ve been giving you. Don’t you feel manipulated? Good, because this week we’re finally answering a question from a listener and talking about how to portray manipulative characters. Kristin joins us for a third time to discuss how to make manipulative characters sympathetic, whether or not manipulative characters should be sympathetic, and who exactly counts as manipulative. We go on at length about the pitfalls of manipulative characters, like how easy it is to stumble into sexist stereotypes or excuse abusive behavior. But we also talk about the benefits of portraying manipulative characters well. You’ll have to listen to find out what those are, though.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Lord Vetinari from Discworld

Dumbledore from Harry Potter

Hogwarts Board of Governors (Not Directors)

Torres, Seven, and Janeway on Voyager

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  1. JackbeThimble

    To be fair Gandalf doesn’t disappear so much in Lord of the Rings, except at the very start on the way to Rivendell and when he’s dead. In the later books he’s continuously involved in the plot, but there are half a dozen things going on at any time and he can only be in one place at once. The Hobbit is an actually egregious example where Gandalf just leaves whenever his presence would invalidate the present conflict. Overall The Lord of the Rings is probably useful as a good example of how to use a powerful benevolent character without wrecking the plot.

  2. Jonas

    I wanted to add that Mistborn the brother situation, I think it was to show an explanation of how that society works. The other two books are really good in my opinion, but I definitely agree they should have eluded to her brother caring at least SOME. Book 3 gets way more into it.

  3. Fatal But Not Serious

    I’m going to add a very late and very old-school addition to this topic: Agatha Christie’s novel Towards Zero. The story begins with the unnamed and un-gendered villain planning their dastardly murder. You read the rest of the story wondering who is manipulating whom, and it is impossible not to suspect everyone in turn.

    Christie is easily dismissed by today’s audience, but she was a popular novelist for a very good reason, and her work is worth revisiting. If you want to know how to develop a character (particularly manipulative characters) without getting inside their head, read Christie, and in particular Towards Zero and The Secret of Chimneys.

  4. Tifa

    On the topic of tough love, I’m of the opinion that conditional love is an oxymoron. It hurts when I read stories where abusive or manipulative behaviour is dismissed as ‘it’s for your own good’.

    On a somewhat happier note, this podcast is proving very useful for me, as I am struggling with making sure one of my characters isn’t manipulative. They are more or less a god, and you know, that has pitfalls galore. I think I’ve figured out the way to approach it, thankfully. I was inspired by Star Trek, and wanted to make a better Prime Directive–or at least one that is enforced in the story and makes sense. So the character in question has to be detached from everything that’s going on while still being a part of the story, if that makes any sense. [Plus it’s to avoid the ‘I’m a god, I can do whatever I want to you’ trap.]

    • Leon

      I recommend reading Iain M. Banks Culture books. The Culture is run by a.i. Minds which are effectively god within their own artificial worlds. They very manipulative; they’re not evil, but they are jerks.

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