One of my main writing projects centers around a character rich with vices. Probably chief among them is self-interest, followed by dishonesty. When I say dishonesty, I mean more than lying to get by. This character is close-lipped about her past, goes by a false name, generally attempts to distance herself from her personal history. Readers are introduced to this character as she's living under a persona which she has constructed.

A major plot point involves her constructing a new persona in much the same way. Other major characters react to this in various ways, not all of them negatively.

I feel like I might have bitten off more than I can chew. I'm familiar with characters creating new identities (link to TV Tropes redacted), mostly as part of a villainous transformation. This is an idea I'm trying to play with, but I wish to present it in a less binary way. Shortly: the humble, virtuous identity is not less or more authentic than the grandiose, power-grabbing one that replaces it.

Is a character like this too complicated, too alienating? Does she require some measure of genuine backstory in order to function effectively as a disingenuous manipulator?

3 Answers 3


I don't think any character is ever too complicated. Some may be alienating to more "mainstream" readers, but that only means you shift your target audience to more ambitious readers.

Then, of course, everything happens for some reason. The character being that way is a result of a certain backstory. That backstory must exist, and be consistent.

Now, whether the backstory exists locked forever in your drawer, is merely hinted in the book, or just revealed through some confession or reminiscence, is your decision. In case of a character so complex, personally I'd choose to drip small hints along the way, building the complete backstory as the book goes - it's something that has enough flavor to keep the reader's curiosity piqued, keep them wanting more.

Not giving out the backstory would be a waste - because backstory of a character so complex is bound to be interesting. Still, even if you decide to keep it hidden, keep it fleshed out - YOU need to know what makes the character tick, what fears, motivations, disappointments, dreams, vengeance twisted a person's personality that far. If you skip it, you'll have a much harder time fleshing out the character and keeping the motivations consistent.


If "the humble, virtuous identity is not less or more authentic than the grandiose, power-grabbing one that replaces it," then both those (apparently contradictory) sets of characteristics exist in the same person.

You have to figure out how that's possible. Her backstory is critical to that. Did she grow up as the child of a monastery's charwoman? Was the monastery headed by a Cardinal Richelieu type? Was the monastery run by kind, humble monks who were eventually destroyed by a powerful political leader who adopted her as heir?

I'm just riffing here, but my point is the same as SF's: for one person to hold such contradictory personalities but have them both be authentic, she has to have had a complex life. Whether the change is caused by internal or external factors, you as the author must account for it.

My feeling as a reader is that if I can't understand why she can be Polly Pure and then flip over to Killer Katrine with a sidebar of Emo Emily along the way, I'm going to think that you as the writer don't know what you're doing, and I'll abandon the story.

Other things you have to think about while you're constructing this backstory:

  • If her Polly Pure self is authentic, but she takes on multiple other personae to hide her past, does she hate that Polly Pure self? Does she look back on her innocent past with contempt?
  • Does she keep changing personae for other people (that is, so they don't know who she is) or for herself (because she can't stand to look at herself in the mirror any more)?
  • Who is she protecting with the constant changes? Whose past is she trying to conceal? Could she be trying to keep her past secret because revealing it would reveal someone else's past or secret?
  • Could she have multiple personality disorder? (you just don't see enough of this in fiction, AFAIC.)
  • What is the reader supposed to think of her various personae? Are we supposed to like them all? Sympathize with them? Is there a persona we shouldn't like? feel sorry for?
  • 3
    "If her Polly Pure self is authentic, but she takes on multiple other personae..." - it's vain to seek the one authentic personality. One specific trait of this kind of characters: Wear too many masks too long, and they become the true 'you' - you forget your own face.
    – SF.
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 11:35
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    @SF Yes, that is part of the effect I was going for. There's an element of meta-fiction involved, but the crux of it is that there's no authentic self. From the perspective of naturalistic characterization, her dishonesty overwhelms any attempt at sincerity.
    – lea
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 13:18
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    @lea: Nevertheless, that never happens "by itself". Somehow, that nature came to be. What kind of failings of the society led to it? That's the backstory!
    – SF.
    Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 13:38
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    If neither personality is actually/eventually authentic, then the character needs to eventually collapse from the 'weight of detachment' from reality. In this situation, the specifics of the failings will be critical. Was each personality an attempt to salvage authenticity? In what small / conditional way was each face authentic? These are different mechanics than the character having an authentic self that is obviated by masks. Therein the willful-rejection of authenticity may be presented. Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 21:36
  • @SF I think I need to think this through and edit my question. I'm quite certain I didn't get my true dilemma through.
    – lea
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 5:28

To a large extent, whether a character is plausible or implausible depends on how well you justify it in the story. I've often read stories where I find myself saying, "Oh come on! Why would he do that?!"

It occurs to me that the more common problem in fiction is that characters are too simple rather than too complicated. I've read lots of stories where I say, "Oh brother, you can describe every character in this story completely with one sentence. He's the 'idealistic young man who can't deal with practical realities', or 'the villain who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of power', or 'the young woman who constantly puts herself in danger for no apparent reason and has to be repeatedly rescued by the hero', etc."

Depending on the nature of the story and how central this character is, you may be able to justify her behavior with two sentences of explanation, or the whole point of the story could be to explain how she came to be this way. As long as you give SOME explanation, and it's at least reasonably plausible. Like, don't just say "because she had a rough childhood" or "because she's crazy". But if you briefly said that, say, when she was a young woman she wanted to do X, and she lived in an environment where everyone around her hated X, and so she had to put on a façade her whole life, and she became accustomed to telling others what they wanted to hear and hiding her true feelings and so .... That might be enough to make me believe it.

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