Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
Plotters, connivers, and manipulators are a popular character archetype, showing up as villains and heroes alike. The recent Doctors. Loki. Batman. Rumplestiltskin. They're absolutely amazing to see when they're done right... but unfortunately, many people don't do them right, often due to misconceptions of how the process actually works. So, here's a go-over over how they don't realistically work compared to how they do.
Plotting & Conniving
In Fictionland, long-term plots and plans are often portrayed like games of chess where at least one player is able to plot twenty moves ahead and thereby corner their opponent into a checkmate.
In Realityland, long-term planning does not work this way. (And neither does chess.) Where fiction would have you believe that pulling this kind of thing off is akin to constructing and setting off a precision machine that will go off perfectly if you just construct it carefully enough and make sure nobody steps in to throw a gear in the wrenches, in reality it’s more like herding cats. In the real world, variables change every minute. Forces you couldn’t have possibly foreseen come into play right at the worst times. People don’t always act how you think they should act.
Here’s an example plot: an evil usurper kills off the royal family save for a sole infant heir, whom the wise court wizard secrets away to be raised by an ally. When the child is of age, xe’ll overthrow the evil usurper in an epic battle and peace will reign, yay!
Just one wee tiny problem: there are countless things that could go wrong in this scenario. The child could die or at the very least become severely disabled from illness, an accident, or a natural disaster. Xe might have not have the mental faculties or skills it takes to be a ruler, or might even be a worse ruler than the one they’re trying to overthrow. When it finally comes time to instate the one true heir as king/queen/whatever, a good chunk of the heir’s supporters could be knocked off their feet by an inconveniently-timed flu. Even something as simple as bad weather could turn a decisive victory into a crushing defeat.
Let’s say a conniver wants to stop a treaty between the Redlanders and the Bluelanders from happening. This conniver knows that Redlander Jessie is an utterly annoying person who has to show off pictures of her pet poodle to everyone she meets, and Bluelander Peter is an avid dog-hater. If Jessie talks to Peter, she’ll put Peter into a bad mood, and if Peter’s in a bad mood he won’t be able to make a convincing case to sign the treaty. So the conniver plans to get Jessie on the board of delegates months in advance and carefully arranges things so that Peter and Jessie’s hotel rooms and schedules are arranged so that they’ll definitely run into each other at lunch, where Jessie will engage Peter in conversation because she’s been seated right next to him and has been told that he adores dogs.
In Fictionland, this would go off without a hitch and the conniver would be presented as such a genius for having so cleverly set this all up. In Realityland, your conniver would be very lucky if it all went down so easily. Jessie might actually be so determined to make this whole thing work that she doesn’t talk about her poodle at all. She might end up with a case of food poisoning and spend the day in her hotel room puking her guts out. Peter might not make it to lunch on time due to a traffic delay, leaving no room for poodle talk by the time he does get there. A recent death of someone he cared about might make him too distraught to get properly angry. Any one of a number of things could go wrong.
The longer and more complicated a plan is, the more things can go wrong with it. The mark of an effective conniver or plotter isn’t setting precision-calibrated plans into motion months or even years before the payoff and having them work out precisely as planned. It’s not even working out each and every potential setback coming and planning for every contingency. It’s the ability to adapt to unexpected twists and setbacks as they come and take advantage of whatever resources are on hand at the moment.
A character that takes outrageous gambles for immense payouts with outrageously long odds does not look like an excellent planner. Xe looks like someone who foolishly staked everything onto outrageous odds and at best got lucky, or at worst like someone whose author simply couldn’t have fail.
When you’re coming up with plans for your conniver/planner, ask yourself: if someone died, was killed, succeeded where they were “supposed” to fail, or failed where they were “supposed” to succeed, would it completely and utterly wreck your character’s plans? If so, BAD PLAN. TRY AGAIN.
Here are more plausible examples of conniving plots:
A wealthy, but corrupt lord has been worried for some time that his corruption might come to light. One night, his property and stables are burned down by peasants discontent over poor labor practices. He fears that investigations might reveal the peasants’ motivations and thereby uncover his corruption, but he also sees an opportunity to cover it up forever. The lord quickly goes to the other nobles and plays himself up as an innocent victim, describing the damage and devastation in vivid detail that shocks the other nobles. Then he insinuates that if action is not taken, they may face the same fate. As a result, the nobles are sufficiently unsettled enough that they immediately side with him in repressing an apparent peasant uprising, rather than looking into the situation in more depth. In their panic, they pass laws that allow them to bypass due process in the name of protecting the stability of the kingdom - which allows the lord to quickly dispose of anyone who might reveal his corruption.
A feared, famous, and dangerous vampire attempts to kill a vampire hunter, but fails and is forced to flee the country. When he returns centuries later, he discovers that his vast fortune is gone and that he has no significance to anyone anymore except as a scary story told to children. But rather than wallow in his loss, he realizes that he essentially has a fresh start: he can fly under the radar and possibly pin the responsibility for whichever evil plans he plans to carry out on vampires that are more feared and more visible in the community than he is. He then proceeds to stake the heart of his highly-respected rival using the method preferred by the vampire hunter who defeated him earlier, thereby implicating the vampire hunter’s descendants. All the vampire has to do now is sit back and watch events unfold.
Not to say that your character can't work toward a long-term goal - but a series of mini-plots that all eventually add up to the final goal work rather better than a single long-term plot.
In Fictionland, a character can watch a person for five minutes and instantly know everything there is worth knowing about that person, up to and including which buttons they can push to make the character do exactly what they want. In Realityland, to really effectively manipulate a person, the manipulator needs to know their targets from several angles, including:
- Their baseline personalities, which is essentially how a person behaves without strong external factors affecting their mood or judgment. Let’s say you meet someone who comes off as angry and bitter - at first meeting, you can’t know if you are dealing with someone who is always this way, or whether you’re dealing with someone who is in a bad mood because xir dog just died. Someone who comes off as particularly happy and chipper may have just won a tournament and may be less exuberant most of the time.
- Their driving motivations and how strong those motivations are. If you know what a person wants in life or admires, it’s easier to offer them a proverbial carrot to lead them on. For example, someone with a strong sense of curiosity and wonder can often be swayed or tempted with knowledge and answers to their questions.
- Their fears and worries. Sometimes people can be swayed by appealing to the things they want to avoid, or things they fear. A manipulative person who knows xir boyfriend or girlfriend is dependent on them may throw a hissy fit about how they’ve had enough and they’re going to leave now, which will prompt the boyfriend/girlfriend to give into xir demands. Also, appealing to fears isn’t always about threatening people with unwanted consequences, but also by offering them ways to avoid unwanted consequences. Someone terrified that a loved one might die of an illness is more likely to spend money on a sham treatment than someone who isn’t.
This one should go without saying, but since some people out there have apparently missed it: if your character tells one of xir targets that xe is a master manipulator, then your character fails at being a master manipulator. Part of the game is keeping the target unaware that xe is being manipulated in the first place.
Now, it isn’t at all hopeless for a manipulator who doesn’t know the target intimately - quite the contrary! A person whom the manipulator does not know well can still be manipulated by appealing to baser and therefore more ubiquitous instincts, desires, and fears. Advertisements do this all the time.
Many commercials play to our desire to belong or be ‘part of the crowd’ by depicting consumers of the product as fun and exciting people who are generally surrounded by other fun and exciting people. You are being subconsciously told that if you buy this product, you will belong to a group of fun and exciting people, too.
Rick Perry’s infamous “Strong” ad shows the Texas governor casually walking beside a forested riverbank in jeans, a big-buckled belt, a button-down shirt, and a brown canvas coat - a wardrobe that tells the rural, conservative voters he was reaching for that “I am one of you!” while suggesting down-home simplicity and honesty. And surely a simple, honest man wouldn’t be lying about students not being allowed to pray in schools...
Sarah Palin’s pro-natural gas campaign advertisement for her 2006 run as governor of Alaska depicted her sitting in a chair with her daughter Piper, which sends multiple messages to viewers - that Sarah Palin is motherly and caring, and that natural gas somehow equates to family together-time.
(Bringing up children in general is an extremely effective manipulation tactic - hence Palin’s use of her daughter Piper and Perry’s kvetching about kids being unable to pray in schools. Put kids into the picture, and parental instincts start bypassing the logic circuits.)
Of course, mass manipulation techniques won’t work on everyone - if they ever really work at all. Obviously, Rick Perry didn’t get elected president, and if the votes on the YouTube version of his “Strong” video are any indication, his campaign platform didn’t go well at all.
As for other modes of manipulation, you could write an entire book on them. As it is, Orange Paper's Propaganda & Debate Techniques and The Cult Test are pretty good resources on manipulation, particularly the darker and shadier side of it.
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