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.


  1. This is what I hate about this site sometimes. The homework. 😀
    On the other hand. I think I may have to review left hand/right hand stuff in some of my WIP’s.

  2. Ah! Now I think I see a way out of a plot hole I was getting into with the WIP. And without tossing the reader and story off the rails. *takes notes*

  3. Another book that I think did this fairly well is Agatha Christie’s “A Caribbean Mystery.” The left hand practically spells out who the murderer is, but the right hand is putting out so many red herrings that I at least completely lost track of the obvious. For a movie that I thought did it very well, the Bollywood film “Don.” The end of that one caused me to say, “Huh. I never saw that coming, but really it makes much more sense than what I thought was going on.”

    An ending like this is awfully hard to pull off, most because either you make the left hand to obvious, and the reader says, “Come on. It’s clearly X. You aren’t fooling anyone, just admit it and get it over with.” Or the reader sees nothing from the left hand, and instead ends up saying, “WTF????” Of the two, I think the former happens far more. First, there’s the fact that, as you say, a character’s position in the victim hierarchy dictates what role he/she/ze must play in the story–no one is seriously going to believe that the wheelchair-bound Muslim transsexual is actually the villain. But there’s also the fact that these twists are just too common. At this point, it’s almost expected that the perfect gentleman the heroine meets in Act 1 is actually a serial killer, and the disreputable ruffian will save her from him.

  4. I think the first time I saw this done was (ick!) the required reading of A Tale of Two Cities. The rest of the book? Ick! But I saw the technique, and still remember the “Oh . . . that was done well!”

  5. Second Attempt:

    It wasn’t misdirection, but I did have a nasty character who I portrayed as the hood with a heart of gold, and then yanked out the rug when I made it clear he had an ulterior motive. The fun part was that the protagonist knew from the start that this was a nasty person, an alleged crime boss under indictment, and fully expected this to be his last ride. The reader (hopefully) goes “Hey, he read him all wrong.” Then the reader finds that he didn’t.

    That one is an easy one.Misdirection in a mystery is easier because you don’t have to like the suspects. As long as all the suspects are plausibly guilty, you can misdirect to your heart’s content. That means all have a plausible motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime. A nudge in different directions then becomes sufficient. The solution, though, must point to a character where all the clues (or lack of them) is a best fit.

    What today’s post describes is much harder, and frankly I don’t think I can pull it off. It’s a whole other type of misdirection, one where the reader has to be pleased with the outcome because it felt right for the character. And that’s why the loathsome character who isn’t a bad guy must have some redeeming qualities, and Mr. Knight in Shining Armor must have some unsightly tarnish.

    It’s fun to turn tropes on their heads. Mr. Squeeky Clean with some dirt on his lapel turns out to be the hero and Mr. Rough Cut with a few redeeming qualities is the dastardly villain after all might work simply because the opposite has been done so many times. And it might be fun for, just one, the butler to really do the deed.

  6. And Dave? You need to read this book . . . _Joy Cometh with the Mourning_, to see all the clue right there, and a lot of the personalities interpreted wrong under stressful situations.

  7. One of my favorite kinds of misdirection is when the audience’s preconceptions regarding the genre conventions is used to set up a twist. Frank Miller’s “Ronin”, for example, the ending is perfectly reasonable, given what we know about the world–it’s just not the story we thought that Miller was telling up to that point.

    Or the film “To Live And Die In LA” blindsides us about three quarters of the way. What happens is what could logically happen in the real world, but it’s something that is Just Not Done in cop thrillers.

  8. Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers by Henning Nelms

    This was recommended to as a how-to-write book, and it was right. It might be particularly good for mysteries, but I’m no judge of that.

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