On Writing: Identity Shenanigans

Secret identities. Hidden dark pasts. The orphan who turns out to be the king’s son. And all kinds of disguises, from the classic hastily-borrowed enemy uniform (see Raiders of the Lost Ark for problems with that) to carefully impersonating another sex, culture, or even species. Writers and readers love identity shenanigans.

With good reason. Humans are social animals, meaning significant parts of our identities are socially constructed. By our culture, by our families, by the reactions of people around us and our reactions to them in turn. The nature vs. nurture debate is probably going to go on forever, but no one can deny that nurture plays a significant factor. Someone who’s never had the chance to pick up a sword will likely never be a master swordsman, even if his birth parents were a dojo master and a legendary assassin; on the other hand, even the clumsiest child adopted by acrobats is likely to learn something about tumbles and handstands, if only through sheer stubborn imitation and repetition.

Yet because we construct so much of our selves, we have a deep fascination with what might be entirely beyond our ability to change. What, if anything, was passed on from our ancestors that we can’t change, for good or ill? And because we can’t change it – because it came from parents or grandparents or who knows how far back – how much do their lives and fates foreshadow our own?

Villainous Lineage is just one of many, many tropes dealing with this idea. It is, unfortunately, a trope probably Older Than Dirt, to the point several cultures considered a criminal’s relatives – and especially children – just as guilty as they were. In some times and places, wiping out a whole family down to newborns in arms wasn’t a war crime, it was justice.

(Supposedly. There are enough stories of humans being human, and my god man that’s a baby I’m not letting this happen, to indicate that no matter what the culture, a fair number of people considered youngsters potentially innocent and would try for rescues if they could pull it off without getting killed themselves.)

Thing is, a lot of stories use this as a sudden Reveal to either explain why someone who might have been heroic was actually a hidden villain all along, or to give a hero an existential crisis. And… that’s valid, and likely true to life in history. But I think it’d be put to better use if you built up to it.

I also think it’d be more realistic in a story that way. Because if someone’s adopted, no matter how well you’ve kept the secret… well, certain aspects of nature will be noticed. The scholar in a family of soldiers, the kid who just doesn’t quite look like the rest, the tendencies to get ill – or stay healthy – that don’t match every other relative in the area. If you can bring those up, and scatter them through the story, then the reader will get an actual Reveal instead of a shock out of nowhere. “Aha! There were all these clues – we should have known all along!” Much more satisfying for a reader.

(Or viewer. The Imperial Coroner does an excellent job with this. As of ep 32 I can count no less than six people who aren’t who everyone thought they were – some adopted, some disguised, and some who’d had their reputations manipulated drastically.)

If you really want to take it over the top? Weave more than identity shenanigans into your story. Weave in little bits that make it clear that deceptions happen, and some things have to be investigated before you know anything for sure. The Imperial Coroner does this with a string of counterfeit coins at the very beginning of the story, that ultimately lead to murder, betrayal, and an attempt to overthrow the empire.

Looks like the bad guys aren’t going to pull that last evil off, though. Because one of those rescued innocents (and possibly two of them) has started unraveling the plot by uncovering her past, and bringing one truth to light brings up so many more….

Bring on the shenanigans. But always root them in some truth the characters can find. Because who I am should have a definite answer!

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12 thoughts on “On Writing: Identity Shenanigans

  1. The other side of this is that the POV character is often assumed to be absolutely trustworthy, and somebody questioning their honesty or reliability, or morality is often depicted as hostile and often indicates they are evil.

    If the MC is discovered to be the child of a villain, it has no effect on their personality or behavior, it just makes everyone else react badly.

    If a sympathetic side character is revealed to be the child of a villain it’s about 50/50 of just being backstory, or used as an explanation of their sudden face-heel turn.

    If an ambiguous character is revealed to be the child of a villain, it changes all their interactions to evil in retrospect, even if they were uncertain at the time.

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  2. Villains aren’t born, they’re made. If a character is revealed to have been the child of a villain, even if they’re a hero, the reactions of everyone else to the reveal can push them into being a villain. It’s highly unlikely for the MC to turn because of that, but still a possibility. Or they could’ve been deceiving everyone all along, because the heroes hurt their villainous family member…

    There’s a lot of deception in nature, for everything. Cuckoos, Milk Snakes, Red-Spotted Purple butterflies, Viceroys, Cuckoo Catfish, and Apistogramma all deceive for one reason or another.

    Harmless Milk Snakes pretend to be venomous Corn Snakes. The butterflies pretend to be poisonous ones.

    Subordinate Apistogramma males pretend to be females to deceive the dominate male. If they trick him into thinking they’re female, he won’t kill them, and they can sneak a mating with his harem of females. The catfish will interrupt the Mbuna’s spawning, laying their eggs, letting the Mbuna mouthbrooders pick them up. The catfish eggs develop faster than the Mbuna do, so the fry eat their hosts’ children.

    A Preying Mantis will blend right in with a stalk, leaf, flower, or twig, letting them ambush their prey. Leafbugs pretend to be leaves, to help avoid getting eaten. Octopi can contort their bodies, change color, and change the texture of their skin to mimic many different animals, or just to blend in.

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    1. You meant coral snakes, right? Coral snakes are plenty venomous, and milk snakes aren’t, but it’s probably safer to stay away from anything looking like a coral snake in any way.

      Corn snakes sometimes get confused with copperheads, but the main difference is that you will probably never see a copperhead. Copperheads really don’t want to be around anyone.

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      1. I was close! I knew that the Milk Snakes were the nonvenomous ones, but I couldn’t remember the name of the venomous ones…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m finding myself thinking about magical nobility, fraud in service of political ends, and shenanigans around “everyone thought that X had Y powers, but they actually had Z powers”.

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    1. My Hero Academia has several deceptions– and I’m fairy sure that the CHARACTERS don’t know one of them!

      (I think Deku had an ability at the start. And we see him using it frequently, folks even call attention to it as “creepy.”)

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  4. Hmmm. . . yes, in Madeleine and the Mists I had Madeleine dress up as a peasant woman, but she never had anyone guess her identity until she choose to reveal it.

    But, ah, there’s The Princess Seeks Her Fortune, where it’s insane to ask a stranger about background. You never know when it’s a — ehem — lady, or lord, who will take offense. They do so so easily. It does leave you grounds to wonder, though it makes it easy for Princess Alissandra to become Alissandra Baker.

    It can be interesting.

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  5. There’s a great example of this in the Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks. The series is five books long… but it takes over half the series for people to figure out who one of the main characters *actually* is. Why yes, Unreliable Narrators are everywhere and *what* exactly people remember about certain events is… highly suspect. Including the character whose real identity people don’t know… his memory about certain events got messed with a little *too* well.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Unless it’s childhood stuff. It’s pretty easy to say “blah blah happened when I was a tiny child,” and then come back later and reveal What It Really Meant. Or “No, that didn’t happen to your brother, that happened to you. That magic item was given to you, not to your evil stepmother.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t mind arguments about past stuff as much. It’s when I can remember what happened and the character can’t.

        I dislike amnesia that begins in story for that reason.

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  6. I forget the author’s name, and the specific titles.

    But, there was a four novel series, each titled something like ‘spell of …’.

    Some sort of high magic fantasy.

    There was wannabe pantheon, and one of them was the curse administrator. There was also a specific curse, the spell of namelessness, that made someone not have a name.

    This eventually all turns out to have much plot significance.

    Liked by 1 person

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