Writing Characters Who Work Behind The Scenes & From The Shadows

Many people try to write characters who work "behind the scenes" or "from the shadows," but for one reason or another these characters and their actions come off as unconvincing, contrived, or even far less sympathetic than they're intended to be. So, here are some tips!

What these characters might be doing

Many writers have a poor idea of what characters who work behind the scenes might be doing, so they can't actually describe what their characters are doing in a convincing manner. They just leave it in vague, handwavey terms that are often as not very unconvincing. So, here's a list of things these characters might be doing. Naturally, exactly what your characters ought to be doing will depend on what they feasibly can do given their own personal circumstances, and how heroic or villainous you want them to be perceived as.

Circulating news and rumors. Whether by directly sharing them with others, or indirectly through means such as paying news outlets to run certain ads or stories, being the person who decides which stories get published, or even by getting people to go and bring it up with others. This can be used for things like swaying people's opinions on political positions or on individual politicians themselves, or making them aware that certain issues need immediate attention.

Talking associates into supporting or opposing something. For example, trying to personally convince friends and cohorts that some political position or other is the right choice, or that some plan or other is actually a terrible idea; or trying to convince them that someone is the best person for the job or is the worst candidate imaginable, and thus try to sway people's opinions enough to make sure this person ends up exactly where desired.

Getting the right people to meet and talk. This could entail arranging events where they can meet, personally introducing them to each other, or even finding some way to make sure they just "happen" to run into each other.

Good old-fashioned diplomacy. Some people might have hesitations about working with each other, or they might have grudges they'll need to be convinced to overlook. It's not an easy job, but someone has to do it.

Collecting and relaying intel. This could entail working as a spy directly, or being in charge of an entire spy operation. For more information, see Spies: A Few Things Writers & Roleplayers Should Know About Them.

Giving instruction. This can include giving potentially-useful people advice, consultation, general guidance, or even full-on training. It can also include telling people what to do based on intel one has collected.

Giving people money or supplies. Essentially, making sure the right people have what they need to get the job done. This can include the people who deliver such goods as part of their jobs, people who donate such to those they support, or people who find ways to steal such from some parties and make sure they get to others.

Fixing or sabotaging things. Those who operate out in the open will need their stuff in working order. So, someone fixing it to make sure it stays that way, or deliberately making sure it doesn't, is something people might do.

Making sure certain people get hired or fired. Basically, working to get the right people in and/or the wrong people out.

Doing paperwork and keeping records. One of the most unglamorous jobs there is, but absolutely vital. No large organization or government could operate without it!

Some further tips

Avoid letting this turn into Nice Guy Syndrome in characters who are supposed to be sympathetic. Here's an example: Rosie helps David "from the shadows" in some way or another. David has absolutely no idea about this. Later on, he learns that Rosie has been helping him, and furthermore, she has a crush on him. But David isn't romantically interested in Rosie. So Rosie tells him that the least he could do after all of that is to give her a chance, and Rosie's friend Daisy tells him that he's being an ingrate by treating Rosie so coldly. Thing is, this is the essence of Nice Guy Syndrome in a nutshell: believing that doing favors for someone means that you are owed some form of intimacy in return. Both Rosie and Daisy are being manipulative, and both need to recognize that David doesn't actually owe Rosie anything.

If they're supposed to be keeping their efforts hidden, they should be careful not to be too ostentatious. Let's say we have someone working as a saboteur. While a few seeming mishaps here and there can easily be explained away as bad luck or incompetence, too many "accidents" should definitely raise suspicion. For example, it's one thing if the prince's sword gets "lost" once, but if it keeps getting "lost" multiple times, or if several people's swords go missing at once, something is almost certainly up. ("Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action" is actually a pretty good heuristic.) Likewise, if they're trying to get their own people installed in a company without anyone noticing, then having a whole bunch hired at once is a bad idea - it's probably a better idea to stagger them out over time, so it's more in line with the usual rate at which the company hires people. Yes, it's possible for some people to overlook some big things sometimes, but if your characters make absolutely no effort to avoid notice, they're going to look extremely incompetent. Plus, if you constantly handwave people off as "too incompetent to notice" or similar, you're going to eventually strain people's willing suspension of disbelief; and if the people they're working against are supposed to be villains, you're likely going to destroy any credibility they have as actual threats.

If they're supposed to be antagonists, be careful that you don't make them absurdly competent. People who write villains who operate this way often fail to factor in that this kind of thing does take time and resources, and that there are many ways it can go wrong. This, of course, potentially damages the story's plausibility. Furthermore, making the villains this good often means that the heroes are doomed from the start, or that the villains will have to suffer an inexplicable drop in competence whenever they tangle with them. You can find more on avoiding this problem over here.

More articles that might be useful:

Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover Ups
Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters

Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments

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