Watch my right hand…
Watch this right hand. It’s doing interesting and strange things…
We all KNOW this stunt.
We all fall for it (or most of us). Every. Darn. Time.
We know (or we should) what is being done. It doesn’t stop it working far too well. Whether it works for contracts or politics, it’s a human instinct. You know – or you should – when someone ‘leaks’ to a friendly media outlet (with its own credibility and possibly legal problems) they’re waving the hand that you’re supposed to see around. It happens in Australia, it certainly seems to happen in the US.
The keep doing it because it still works pretty well.
That’s the real world’s problem. Ours is slightly different. You see… we’re the ones waving the distracting hand (or rather prose) around. But we face a more complex task. You see it’s very rare that we don’t want the reader to – at the right time and right scene – see the other hand. Worse (for us) we want them to realize that they were actually seeing the other hand all the time.
It’s the centerpiece of the modern Murder Mystery, important in a lot of SF and Fantasy and very common in Romance. (I can’t say I noticed it in modern Literary Fiction much). It struggles in modern PC literature of any sort, because the characters are count the tokens and their roles are defined by their position in the hierarchy of victimhood. For example, you can’t have the lesbian token even appearing to be the villain, let alone actually being the villain, without attracting hissy fits.
One of the more common tropes – particularly in Romance, but I’ve seen it – and used it, in sf/fantasy – is the ‘villainous’ hero – the hero who looks like the villain.
Yeah. You’ve read it too. Done badly it is TBR awful.
Done well… it can be exceptional.
So: first off what IS ‘done badly’? Yes, I know. We all know it… and throw it, when we see it. But what makes that difference between bad and good? Quite simply: readers don’t like changing their allegiance to a character (and yes, we all identify with and root for certain characters) because the author says ‘ha ha, fooled you. Cousin Fred is the good guy after all.” If you as the reader suddenly find that Cousin Fred was doing his level best to save the heroine, but the writer was deliberately letting us see his worst characteristics, and his deeds in the most suspicious light (that ‘noisy’ right hand)… and you’ve spent the entire book eagerly waiting for Cousin Fred to get his comeuppance – to instead have him gain the heroine’s love and hand in marriage – you’re not going to be a happy reader.
BUT if from the get-go the deeds of Cousin Fred are colored with just that hint of the left hand… and the writer has slowly built sympathy and even possibly liking for Cousin Fred… a little whimsy desire to see him… at the very least, escape justice… that’s different. It usually works with his inevitable counterpart – the ‘heroic’ villain gradually having his sympathy and the reader’s trust eroded – so when he turns into the bad guy, they are relieved.
It’s NOT an easy trick to pull off well. The common murder mystery trope, where the villain appears innocent and another character appears guilty is an easier one, because you just have to set things up so that the guilty party would be the suspect, were it not for the loud right hand (and the visible but distracted from left, which makes them guilty). It can be simply about the mystery and both the patsy and the villain be rather unlikable (Midsomer Murders does this a lot. Heyer did to a lesser extent in her murder mysteries. When she did it in the romance arena she was a lot better at making us like the apparent villain – even when it was de facto a murder mystery (THE QUIET GENTLEMAN – where Theodore attempts to make it look as if the impetuous young Martin (the heir apparent, who has been ‘done out’ of his inheritance by unlooked-for survival of Gervase, is the guilty party, trying to kill Gervase. Now the hero of the story is Gervase, so the reader thinking Theodore dull and Martin painfully intemperate and impetuous is fine.
The classic example of the ‘villainous’ hero is in her ‘REGENCY BUCK’ –not one of my favorites, but really fine example of doing this cleverly and well. The author pulls off something probably way beyond my ability – She starts off with a moderately unlikeable heroine (which is done with a balance of PITA impetuous behavior, and a somewhat more impetuous and foolishly spoilt younger brother – the heroine is ‘redeemed’ by her high spirited self-reliance, and her care for her brother – and by the fact that the left hand shows (despite the right hand flashy displays of temper and outright foolishness) that she knows her errors. Won’t readily or happily acknowledge it, but knows it. The heroine takes a vast dislike to the ‘villainous’ hero on first meeting, and the author is careful to cast her experiences with him (in the attempts to murder her younger brother) as… ambivalent. In her eyes, he could be guilty. BUT the author lets us see things that the sister is unaware of: the ‘villainous’ hero destroying the debt-vowels that could take money from the younger brother and heir. The real villain – Bernard – allows him to wear the blame for this non-existent loss (but the reader knows it is non-existent) Bernard is thus gradually shown to be cozening rogue, but what the author has done is not so much to change the ‘villainous’ hero as to change the heroine gradually, and therefore her perception of the hero. We see relatively little from his point of view, and that carefully ambivalent – because that would reveal too early. But it’s a really brilliantly orchestrated piece.
Read it – as a study not as a pleasure (you’re better off with the repartee-dialogue in several of her others). But once you realize you’re being shown the left hand, just distracted from realizing it by the pyrotechnics on the right… you’ll understand how to do it yourself.
I wish I could do it half as well. I wish politicians did it worse.