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 the real world, neither chess nor long-term planning work this way. 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 so long as nobody steps in to throw a wrench in the engine, in reality it's more like herding cats. The thing is, variables change every minute and forces you couldn't have possibly foreseen can come into play at any time. People won't always behave how you expect they'll behave. Sudden accidents, illnesses, or injuries can instantly knock key players out of the game. Unpredictable natural disasters and socio-political shifts will happen. Unpredictable disasters like this, also known as black swan events, are simply inevitable.

Here's an example of a plot you might see in a fantasy story: 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 comes of age, xe'll overthrow the evil usurper in an epic battle and peace will reign, yay!

Just one wee tiny problem: there are way too many things that could go wrong. The child could die or end up disabled from illness or injury. 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.

Here's another example: 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 the real world, 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 number of things could go wrong.

The longer and more complicated a plan is, the more things can go wrong with it. Smart people know this, and they take it into account. 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. At best, xe looks like someone who foolishly staked everything onto outrageous odds and got astronomically lucky. At worst, xe looks like a character whom the author couldn't bear to let 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 the real world, the manipulator first needs to know the target from several angles, including:

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.)

The best and most effective manipulations are those that leave the targets feeling like the winners. This is why advertisers emphasize how much money consumers will save when they buy their products - even though the consumer may not have even needed the product in the first place, xe is focusing on the money xe didn't spend rather than the money xe did.

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.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Spies: A Few Things Writers & Roleplayers Should Know About Them
Writing Characters Who Work Behind The Scenes & From The Shadows
How To Write Better Villains
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover Ups
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters

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