Why Characters Should Manipulate Conversations

A look at why and how characters manipulate conversations, and why your characters should be doing the same.

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I’m sure you’ve heard that no-one really says what they mean, because the words we use when we speak and how we choose to deliver those words are not spoken in isolation, but heavily influenced by everything else going on in our lives. As writers, we strive to create characters who are as realistic as possible—no matter the world they exist in—and so we need them to be influenced by the very same conversational forces that influence and drive us.

One of those forces is our agenda, our need to gain something, learn something, and ultimately achieve a satisfying end result. Sometimes we merely feel comfortable to ask for what we want or need, but sometimes, in certain situations, manipulation via conversation may become necessary.

Manipulation is usually viewed as a selfish, although somewhat intelligent technique, used by people to get what they want at the expense of who they are speaking to. A person being manipulative may pretend to be the other person’s friend, or to be interested in a certain subject the other person feels strongly about, to gain something for themselves. If you look at fiction through a rigid black and white lens, you could say that manipulation—a characteristically sly and sneaky technique—is predominately exhibited by antagonistic characters.

EXT. SCAR’S ROCK LEDGE

SCAR on his overhanging rock ledge. We see him pace once and kick an old bone off the edge.

Enter young SIMBA.

SIMBA: Hey Uncle Scar! Guess what!

SCAR: I despise guessing games.

SIMBA: I’m going to be king of Pride Rock.

SCAR: (sarcastically) Oh goody.

SIMBA: (looking out over the edge of the rock) My dad just showed me the whole kingdom; (greedily) and I’m going to rule it all. (chuckles)

SCAR: Yes. Well…forgive me for not leaping for joy. Bad back, you know.

SCAR flops down on his side.

SIMBA: Hey, Uncle Scar? When I’m king, what’ll that make you?

SCAR: A monkey’s uncle.

SIMBA: (laughs) You’re so weird.

SCAR: You have NO idea. (pauses) So, your father showed you the whole kingdom, did he?

SIMBA: Everything.

SCAR: He didn’t show you what’s beyond that rise at the northern border?

SIMBA: (disappointed) Well, no…he said I can’t go there.

SCAR: And he’s absolutely right. It’s far too dangerous. Only the bravest lions go there.

SIMBA: Well, I’m brave! What’s out th—

SCAR: (interrupts) No, I’m sorry, Simba, I just can’t tell you.

SIMBA: Why not?

SCAR: Simba, Simba, I’m only looking out for the well-being of my favorite nephew.

SCAR rubs and pats SIMBA’s head with mock affection.

SIMBA: (snorts sarcastically) Yeah, right. I’m your only nephew.

SCAR: All the more reason for me to be protective. An elephant graveyard is no place for a young prince— (fakes surprise) Oops!

SIMBA: (enthusiastically) An elephant what? Whoa!

SCAR: (fakes dismay) Oh dear, I’ve said too much. (pauses) Well, I suppose you’d have found sooner or later, you being SO clever and all… (pulls SIMBA near) Oh, just do me one favor—promise me you’ll never visit that dreadful place.

SIMBA: (thinks) No problem.

SCAR: There’s a good lad. You run along now and have fun. And remember…it’s our little secret.

SIMBA leaves the rock. SCAR walks away with an evil smile.

The Lion King, 1994

Disney movies can always be relied on for providing a wealth of examples of truly evil antagonists blatantly using manipulation to get what they want, including this one, where Scar—the current King’s brother—slyly baits his nephew Simba to go to the forbidden elephant graveyard by implying that he isn’t brave enough to go there. As he is dealing with an infant, Scar uses reverse psychology, along with a pinch of flattery, to achieve this. Scar’s end goal—his agenda—is to get Simba killed so that he can be next in line to the throne. An aspect that makes this act of manipulation particularly unsavoury is the ruthlessness of enticing a child (or cub) is being manipulated by an adult figure.

The more obvious and blatant the level of manipulation being utilised, the more likely it is that an antagonistic character is doing it. It’s also very likely that these antagonists are extremely proud of their manipulation and gloat at their own cleverness. But manipulation can come in many different forms, and for a whole spectrum of reasons.

I’m not a villain, but I will admit that—occasionally—I’ve manipulated conversations to gain something I want. Most of us do it, just like we all make mistakes and tell little white lies when we feel it necessary. This makes us human. Therefore, just as your protagonists are allowed to make a mistake or two, readers will forgive them for using manipulation in conversation, particularly if there is an established need where the end could justify the means.

Here’s an example of a protagonist using manipulation in conversation with another character, in the forms of flattery and flirtation, to get what they want.

“So you’re, what, sixteen?” I asked, trying not to look like an idiot as I fluttered my eyelids the way I’d seen girls do on TV.

“I just turned fifteen,” he confessed, flattered.

“Really?” My face was full of false surprise. “I would have thought you were older.”

“I’m tall for my age,” he explained.

[…]

“The Cullens? Oh, they’re not supposed to come onto the reservation.” He looked away, out towards James Island, as he confirmed what I’d thought I’d heard in Sam’s voice.

“Why not?”

He glanced back at me, biting his lip. “Oops. I’m not supposed to say anything about that.”

“Oh, I won’t tell anyone, I’m just curious.” I tried to make my smile alluring, wondering if I was laying it on too thick.

He smiled back though, looking allured. Then he lifted one eyebrow and his voice was even huskier than before.

“Do you like scary stories?” he asked ominously.

“I love them,” I enthused, making an effort to smoulder at him.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

In the above extract, protagonist Bella is manipulating the character Jacob to gain information from him about why the Cullens, a family in the town, are not allowed to join them at the beach, and she wants to find out why.

When protagonists are manipulative, it’s important that they truly believe what they are doing is for the greater good, because otherwise, if the manipulation of another character isn’t absolutely necessary, the inherent ‘goodness’ of the protagonist will come into question.

“I’m sorry,” Jenny said quietly, without looking at him. “I’m sorry he did it. He wasn’t a bad man.” Then she turned. “I can hardly believe he kept you here.”

“Believe it,” Julian said grimly.

Jenny shook her head. “I’ll always love him. But he was wrong to do what he did.” She stepped into the closet. “Not as small as it looks.”

“Small enough.” He stepped in too, looked around. “This place brings up bad memories.”

“See if we can’t make a better one.” She smiled up at him, backed up against one wall.

He turned and smiled down at her. In the confined space they were very close. Jenny stood shyly, one leg crossed behind the other.

He bent his head again, his mouth warm and demanding. Jenny gave herself up to it, and the kiss opened like a slow-blooming flower. Became so breathless and urgent that Jenny couldn’t break it, even though she knew she had to. She kept thinking, Just one more minute, just one more minute…

It was Julian who pulled back.

“It’s rather uncomfortable in here.”

“Do you think so?” She smiled up at him, breath slowing.

“Definitely.”

“Well then, I suppose we could—”

‘Now’, she thought.

In the middle of her sentence she moved. She had been standing in the cross stance, a kung fu stance Dee had taught her. Good for instant lateral movement. Now, in a split second, she used the power of her left leg to throw her to the right, vaulting out of the closet. In the same motion she slammed shut the door.

“Nauthiz!” she shouted. She slashed the X in the air.

As she shouted it, the rune flashed brightly on the closet door. Not red like fire, but blue-white like ice.

She didn’t know if she was doing it right, but it was what her grandfather had done – or tried to do. Shut the door, trace the rune, say the name. She pronounced it as her grandfather had pronounced it.

And Julian did not come leaping out after her.

The Forbidden Game by L J Smith

Here the protagonist, Jenny, pretends to be willing to stay with shadow-man Julian in his dark realm. Julian has killed one of her friends and will likely kill her boyfriend, all because he got a captivating glimpse of her years before when her rune-dabbling grandad opened a portal to another world in their basement. Jenny uses trickery and manipulation to lure Julian inside the same closet that her grandfather had locked him in for years and, once his defences are down, craftily traps him back inside it “because she knew she had to,” although she was definitely displaying signs that she was conflicted, and actually might have been contemplation her dark-realm relocation.

If your main character isn’t always squeaky-clean and their current situation calls for it, then providing them the opportunity to be manipulative in speech can expose elements of their character, making them more relatable.

Here’s an extract from Nod by Adrian Barnes, where protagonist Paul has been given the opportunity to speak to a sleep-deprived crowd of cult followers by their hobo leader in this awful future version of our world.

When I finished, Charles stepped forward to make his plea for brotherhood and unity among the cracked masses, but for a good five minutes they wouldn’t listen, just kept whooping and stomping for me.

[…]

“What was that, Paul?” Something new in his eyes. Fear, I hoped.

“What?”

“The way you spoke.”

“I did what you asked, Charles.”

My little power play was blatant. I knew I’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, my secret weapon having been that I didn’t give a damn about a world that didn’t give a damn about human beings: my contempt had spoken to the crowd. Now Charles would have to deal with the fallout—with the Seattle in my words—if he wanted to keep the spotlight focused on him.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Paul, the protagonist, gloats at his triumph at manipulating both Charles and the crowd, because of the circumstances he’s been put in.

At times, both the main character of a story and an antagonist can use manipulation to different degrees in the same conversation, because of their contradicting agendas, as seen in the following example.

“Well then,” Serina says. She stops winding, leaving me with my hands still garlanded with animal hair, and takes the cigarette end from her mouth to butt it out, “Nothing yet?”

I know what she’s talking about. There are not that many subjects that could be spoken about, between us; there’s not much common ground, except this one mysterious and chancy thing.

“No,” I say. “Nothing.”

“Too bad,” she says. It’s hard to imagine her with a baby. But the Marthas would take care of it mostly. She’d like me pregnant though, over and done with and out of the way, no more humiliating sweaty tangles, no more flesh triangles under her starry canopy of silver flowers. Peace and quiet. I can’t imagine she’d want such good luck, for me. For any other reason.

“Your time’s running out,” she says. Not a question, a matter of fact.

“Yes,” I say neutrally.

She’s lighting another cigarette, fumbling with the lighter. Definitely her hands are getting worse. But it would be a mistake to offer to do it for her, she’d be offended. A mistake to notice weakness in her.

“Maybe he can’t,” she says.

I don’t know who she means. Does she mean the commander, or God? If it’s God, she should say won’t. Either way it’s heresy. It’s only women who can’t, who remain stubbornly closed, damaged, defective.

“No, maybe he can’t.”

I look up at her. She looks down. It’s the first time we’ve looked into each other’s eyes in a long time. Since we met. The moment stretches out between us, bleak and level. She’s trying to see whether or not I’m up to reality.

“Maybe,” she says, holding the cigarette, which she has failed to light. “Maybe you should try it another way.”

Does she mean on all fours? “What other way?” I say. I must keep serious.

“Another man,” she says.

“You know I can’t,” I say, careful not to let my irritation show. “It’s against the law. You know the penalty.”

“Yes,” she says. She’s ready for this, she’s thought it through. “I know you can’t officially, but it’s done. Women do it frequently. All the time.”

“With doctors, you mean?” I say, remembering the sympathetic brown eyes, the gloveless hand. The last time I went it was a different doctor. Maybe someone caught the other one out, or a woman reported him. Not that they’d take her word, without evidence.

“Some do that,” she says, her tone almost affable now, though distanced; it’s as if we’re considering a choice of nail polish. “That’s how Ofwarren did it. The wife knew, of course.” She pauses to let this sink in. “I would help you. I would make sure nothing went wrong.”

I think about this. “Not with a doctor,” I say.

“No,” she agrees, and for this moment at least we are cronies, this could be a kitchen table, it could be a date we’re discussing, some girlish stratagem of ploys and flirtations. “Sometimes they blackmail. But it doesn’t have to be a doctor. I could be someone we trust.”

“Who?” I ask.

“I was thinking of Nick,” she says, and her voice is almost soft. “He’s been with us a long time. He’s loyal. I could fix it with him.”

So that’s who does her little black-market errands for her. Is this what he always gets, in return?

“What about the commander?” I say.

“Well,” she says, with firmness; no, more than that, a clenched look, like a purse snapping shut. “We just won’t tell him, will we?”

This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: Heavy, formless, dark; collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort. She does want that baby.

“It’s a risk,” I say. “More than that.” It’s my life on the line; but that’s where it will be sooner or later, one way or another, whether I do or I don’t. We both know this.

“You might as well,” she says. Which is what I think too.

“All right,” I say. “Yes.”

She leans forward. “Maybe I could get something for you,” she says. Because I’ve been good. “Something you want,” she adds, wheedling almost.

“What’s that?” I say. I can’t think of anything I truly want that she’d be likely or able to give me.

“A picture,” she says, as if offering me some juvenile treat, an ice cream, a trip to the zoo. I look up at her again, puzzled.

“Of her,” she says. “Your little girl. But only maybe.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Both characters in this extract have different wants and needs, but the path to achieving those wants and needs is the same. Offred, the protagonist, needs to fall pregnant. Serena, an antagonist and wife of a powerful commander in this dystopian novel, wants to be rid of Offred and, of course, wants a baby in this world where the number of babies born is in steep decline. Offred wants to fall pregnant, but a handmaid sleeping with a man other than the one she has been assigned to is forbidden and highly punishable—both women would be at risk if it were found out. To make it clear that she still has the upper hand, Serena tells Offred she might give her a photograph of her daughter, who has been taken away and homed with another family. This taunt of the possibility of a photograph isn’t a gift, but a painful revelation that Serena has known the location of Offred’s child all along and, although Offred has already agreed to Serena’s plan, Serena needs Offred to realise that the two women are certainly not equals.

When we have an agenda, a need, we speak in the a which we believe will be the most successful at achieving our goal. Characters, just like us, have needs and wants, likes and dislikes, and so, they will likely, at some point, be faced with the opportunity to use manipulation in conversation to achieve their goals. You should let them.

Manipulation via conversation can create conflict, friction and intrigue. It helps reveal a character’s true colours, pushes their limits and their morals and if applied correctly, will grip readers. But the way in which they go about it, their level of knowingness, enjoyment, or regret, will depend on how you wish them to be viewed by your readers.

Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.

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