At this writing, I’m halfway through an audiobook, Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman. The point-of-view character is clearly up to something and I haven’t quite figured out what. (By the time this post is published, I will have finished the book, but I won’t spoil it for you.) The author does an excellent job of making Malin intriguing. She contemplates how to respond to her friends’ troubles in an effort to manipulate them. I still don’t know why and I’m definitely going to finish the book to find out why. She alludes to a past tragedy and impatience with others’ weaknesses, so perhaps she’s a psychopath, which if she is, is going to make the ending very interesting.
This is my kind of book.
If you were going to write a manipulative character like Brockman’s Malin, what can you do to demonstrate that they’re up to something, without giving everything away?
Here are eight suggestions. These are, by far, not exhaustive, but if you devised these eight strategies, you’d be on your way to creating a character we all love to hate:
1. Your manipulative character is silent after every question. Silence makes people uncomfortable. The quieter they are, the more likely someone will talk to fill up the silence. If your character is an interrogator or even just an amateur sleuth, have him use this technique to get canaries to sing. Even if they are simply a college student answering the “Where are you from? What is your major?” litany, silence will communicate an icy aloofness, one that is off-putting, and possibly even intimidating.
2. Your manipulative character maintains eye contact during the conversation. Prolonged contact can make other people uncomfortable, this is confrontational and can be a good device to turn up the heat. I used have abusers in my life who used to stare at me when they wanted to communicated their animosity toward me. Until I cut them out of my life, it gave me chills.
3. Your manipulative character may move their body in such a way that they are physically at an advantage. Picture a man standing, towering over a seated woman. Or a woman who puts her hands on her hips to give instructions. A manipulator will know how to use their body to express dominance. A subtle, unspoken physical threat can be very persuasive. .
4. Your manipulative character drives conversations to conclusions, even without consensus. After a request, they may say, “Let’s wrap this up and get to an early lunch,” even if their requests have not been granted. Powerful, manipulative people are, no doubt, bullies, and they rely on the fact that many people hate confrontation. Manipulators take advantage of the fact that others don’t want to appear “rude” so they just take what they want. Most often they get it.
5. Your manipulative character sends subtle physical cues that they are “interested” or “attracted” to others. They may do this by blinking, by touching their hair, by touching their face, by smiling. Sometimes the way our feet are pointed, indicates what we are the most interested in. Often we send cues like these to others when we are physically attracted to them. Your manipulative character knows this and purposefully does so that they can control others. This article gives excellent examples of attraction. And while many of us do this unconsciously, a manipulator will put these types of cues in their arsenal.
6. Your manipulative character cracks jokes to look for allies. This is especially important if your bully is a racist, a misogynist, or just a jerk. You can find out a lot of information about others in a joking environment. Those who laugh heartily at off color jokes are probably people pleasers who want to be in with the “cool kids,”; these will be the easiest to control. Those who are a bit stand-offish could be an opposing force. And those who look at each other during a joke have the closest relationships. Humor and laughter builds intimacy and we naturally seek those we are closest to when we’re especially amused. A manipulative character knows this and will make a note of who is with whom and who laughs. Don’t neglect this. This is a great tool for your manipulator.
7. Your manipulative characters stays calm and quiet when voices are raised. Why? The power goes to the person who has the most emotional control. In a crisis, the steadier, calmer characters will by the way they handle themselves, will command respect from others. Your manipulative character also knows that the more emotional others appear, the less respect they’ll receive from others. Manipulators are quite happy to let the more unstable people around them hang themselves on their hyperemotional rope.
I love, love, love manipulative characters! (I think it’s because I know they’re safe, tucked inside a fiction, and they’re never going to touch me!) So as you develop your shady characters’ goals and dreams, consider putting in this subtle actions, whether protagonist or an antagonist, so they can get what they want.