1. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Writing creepy characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by taariya, Jun 17, 2016.

    I'm currently writing a villain who's meant to be extremely charismatic (he's a cult leader, after all) but by his own admission tends to creep people out at times. The way I'm thinking it's because a person, whether or not they know about his "leadership experience", can't help but pick up on something predatory in his mannerisms/the sense that he has ulterior motives. It shouldn't be a staple of every interaction with him (he's supposed to be likable so if everyone constantly got bad vibes from him it wouldn't fit that they seek out his presence), it should just shine through occasionally but brightly.

    I'm trying to avoid having the protagonist just outright state there's something wrong with the character ("There was just something off about him" "I got a bad feeling from him"). I know intuition and gut feelings are a thing that can usually be trusted, but personally when I read a character just magically "knowing" something about another character's morality based on a gut feeling, I can't help but feel it's a bit lazy on the author's part.

    I'm also trying to avoid it being too obvious that this guy is weird without the protagonist voicing that, for the reason I stated and because once you make it clear enough that a certain likable character isn't as they seem, then you run the risk of pressing the "obvious villain is OBVIOUS" button and making the protagonist look like an absolute idiot for not picking up on the signs.

    Any input is welcome!
     
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  2. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Well, going off people I've met who were incredibly charismatic, I'd say the tipping point is when they're too charming. Somehow they always know exactly what you need to see or hear to trust them. You find out everyone had the same experience with them, too. At first it just seems like they really are that kind and likable, but maybe you start to find out they're offering strikingly different things/viewpoints to different people. Everybody feels like their favorite, but everybody can't be.

    They're never mad, even about things they obviously should be. Ultimate peacekeepers - if you have a disagreement with someone else who's following them they'll find a way to make it sound like you're both right; if you have a disagreement with them they'll find a way to make it sound like you're actually saying the same thing. They use a lot of vague/positive words, big smiles, and reassuring hand movements. You end up confused and maybe feeling like the conflict hasn't been solved, but the reason for fighting doesn't make sense anymore. Still, in almost every interaction with them they come across as charming and friendly, so the cases where they come off as weird tend to get buried - they're always adept at subtly reminding people of their virtues (with actions, not words).

    They've giving, even if they seem to have nothing; they'll do anything for you so you feel like you should do anything for them, too. They suffer just the right amount - nothing too severe - for you to feel bad for them, while still respecting their abilities. They just have bad luck. The rare people who see through them right away are painted as the villains in their lives - the ex-wife who took him for everything even though he was so good and faithful, the landlord who just won't be reasonable, the old friend who stabbed him in the back out of nowhere. They have a past of people who seemed to just 'flip' on them, if you hear about their past at all, and they never, ever did anything to deserve it. They want your sympathy and if you question why people would treat them this way, it's because they were the shady, predatory ones.

    Eventually you get the sense that they're a step ahead of you, and they're aware of it and actively using it to manipulate you. If that's not creepy, I don't know what is. In a way, they almost start to seem like a 'character' themself, which might complicate writing someone like this and them coming across as realistic, but if you do it well then when the curtain's pulled back on them, it should suddenly make a lot more sense to the reader.
     
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  3. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Is it creepier (to an outsider at least) if they clearly do have a favorite and then the dynamic is not so much everyone feeling as if they are already the favorite but instead competing to be? Or does this sort of rivalry threaten his image as a charismatic, universally magnificent and kind person, as people who feel like they're not the favorite might become resentful over time?

    For example, the protagonist comes in at a time when one member of the cult has fallen out of favor with pretty much everyone. Do the other members of the cult react to the sudden appearance of the protagonist with hostility, as if he is a competitor, or are they completely obedient and accepting of the leader's choice of admitting him? Which one reflects worse on the leader in terms of weirdness?

    I've never been in this sort of group based around a central charismatic person so I don't understand the dynamics. Sorry if these questions seem obvious.

    How so? What kind of action do they take when someone they need on their side grows distant or starts doubting them and can't be manipulated with words?
     
  4. Auger
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    Auger Senior Member

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    A character who remains calm and collected in situations that would normally elicit some kind of human emotion would be pretty terrifying.
     
  5. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I feel like that's totally a possibility, but it's not the type of situation I have experience with so I can only guess. I'd think that it'd be a less stable sort of thing. It's be tougher for him to maintain balance and keep people feeling like they're special and should follow him if he clearly has a favorite that he always comes back to, and yeah, you'd have more people feeling like they're not getting anything out of it and bailing. He could still have a following with this model, but it'd be smaller unless he was really able to sell his 'product' - whatever concept the cult's based around.

    Members would probably be welcoming towards someone new if the leader is welcoming too, but that can be played for weirdness as well - people who otherwise wouldn't like the protag accepting him just because the leader says he's all right. It's in his best interests to keep everyone getting along, unless/until it's time to start portraying the new guy as a troublemaker, at which point there's more likely to be aggression from the others. Which he'd still want to quell, but would tacitly endorse by talking about the protag in delicately othering terms. "You know, he's a great guy, he just doesn't really fit in with us. He just doesn't seem to get it. I've tried to help him, but ..."

    Offer them free stuff, do favors for them without being asked (help someone move or help someone repair their home, etc), give them gifts that aren't too exorbitant but show thoughtfulness, endear himself to people they're close to who might be more susceptible to his manipulation and will report back "y'know, that guy's actually really cool". Actions are typically seen as a more concrete 'proof' that someone's a good person so 'proving' himself by doing good things, standing up for people (only when he actually has nothing to lose). If you get a bad vibe off someone but everyone's reminding you that he gave them stuff and did stuff for you, it starts to seem like you're being unreasonable. That's gaslighting; if you haven't yet you should read up on how it works, actually.
     
  6. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Glad for this advice because I looked it up and found a series of articles from psychologists about manipulative behaviors. I'm going to dig into this and see how I can incorporate these behaviors. Thanks.
     
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  7. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Wouldn't it just be a reason for a lot of people to admire them even more? Like "wow, he's a really strong person, he's keeping it together. if that were me I would've lost it".
     
  8. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Peal me at the flesh slowly, methodically, inch by inch in symmetrical fashion. I will not give you a response nor beg for you to cease. And when is all is said and done ,I will amuse myself with your death. (Skin crawling?)

    There are many ways to make your villain creepy. The way he openly speaks about horrific things he has done, should be deadpan and without emotion. Cavalier if you will.
    Although you can have them say something really dark or disturbing randomly during normal conversation, and act as if they had just added something to the conversation
    that the other person would be too afraid to point out (or disgusted to want to point it out).

    Though in all honesty having them act like a cult leader is more than enough. Cult leaders start out being cool and charismatic. But when they impose their agenda on the followers,
    they will have little trouble in exacting it. (Its all psychology of heard mentality, and mind games of manipulation. Every body wants to be involved/appreciated, and will do whatever
    is asked to receive affections from the Cult leader, as well as a place of status within the community.)

    Good luck on creepy guy #1 and all the best. :supersmile:
     
  9. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    People who flout rules of social interaction can make others feel uncomfortable in a way which can be hard to define. For example, unspoken rules of proximity, physical contact, eye contact and use of personal and intimate language can make for a very creepy interaction if such rules are broken, either intentionally or unintentionally. Psychopaths are often quite adept at manipulating others by deliberately breaking these rules.
     
  10. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    One tactic of abusers (be it abusive parents, toxic romantic partners or sketchy authority figures) is that they're often very kind and likeable in groups, but if you're with them alone, that's when their true colors come out. This way, because they build such a good image in the public eye, no one would believe that they could ever do anything cruel, and it makes the victim look like the dishonest one.
    In this case, perhaps he's not suspicious at all when in the presence of others, but the MC is alone with them and that's when he says/does something with a more malevolent undertone.
    Not anything huge, necessarily. Just maybe they say a hateful comment or show disdain in a way that normally would never have come out of their mouth.
     
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  11. Buttered Toast
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    Buttered Toast Active Member

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    Why not have the protagonist catch him doing something strange, like he saw him through a crack in the door mulling over whatever bad thing he is working towards or talking to some dodgy person he shouldn't have any dealings with?
    Or he walks in on him doing something out of the ordinary?
    Or the protagonist might have been asked to pick up some of his paperwork and something odd might fall out of it that shows he has ulterior motives?
     
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  12. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    Creepy body language too. For instance, look at Ted Cruz'z facial expressions, where his mouth is smiling but his eyes turn down in a frown-like manner.

    You don't want to be too obvious though, or it will seem cheesy and forced.
     
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  13. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I once befriended someone this manipulative at uni and didn't see through it till two friends from the same group began seeing through him and telling me about it. Some common phrases this guy used:

    "Everyone is saying/thinking/doing this..."
    "I'm telling you this because I care about you."
    "I don't want to see you excluded. We don't want the group to lose you. But you've got to play your part..."
    "You're my best friend, you know that. No one would tell you this stuff but I'm telling you because I care..."
    "I'm just looking out for you."

    The "everyone" concept is a big one, by the way.

    Then my two smarter friends basically came to me in private and told me outright what they thought this guy was doing, made me realise the guy was telling us all the same things, clarifying with me that the "issues" that "everyone" has with me were not true for them, at least, that they had no such issues with me as the guy claimed and if they ever had issues with me, I'd certainly hear about them directly from them. You can always tell when someone's being completely blunt with you or if they're just a little sly. What someone else above said about leaving you confused from the conversation is very true - and there was no confusion with these friends. Thanks to them, eventually I broke away from that guy too.
     
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  14. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    In my opinion, the best way to make someone unsettling is to treat them differently without being overt about it. Make it something subtle, that the reader won't pick up on conciously - Use different dialogue tags (or no dialogue tags at all,) be oddly specific about the way he moves, just think about how you present all your characters and present him differently. Is he a little *too* charming? Mention that he's smiling whenever he does anything.

    My favorite example of this subtle action is The Happy Mask Salesman from Majora's Mask: He never gets transition animations, instead popping from one pose to another without space in between. There's nothing specifically wrong about that, but it's weird, and puts the player on edge just because it's off a little bit.
     
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  15. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    I really like the suggestions so far. Some of them fit my story/character better than others but they're all good material.
     
  16. Auger
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    Auger Senior Member

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    I meant an "uncanny valley" level of calmness.
    Imagine a villain who emotes as much torturing a prisoner for information as he does shopping for groceries.
     
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  17. theoriginalmonsterman
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    theoriginalmonsterman Pickle Contest Administrator Contributor

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    @taariya I mean could you give an example of a situation that you believe that this "charismatic" character acts creepy? Like write it as it was a passage from your story.
     
  18. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    "
    The man bookmarked his page before crossing the room to greet his guest. Elias used the brief pause to appraise his host. Until then, his mental image of the baron had been a fuzzy amalgamation of the men at the club: old, grey-haired, maybe suffering a phantom hairline or burgeoning waist as he crept toward retirement. He was in no way prepared for the man himself.

    Baron van Gans must have been no less than fifteen years younger than any of the men at the club. His dark waves were unmarred by gray strands, his shaven face still smooth. He looked so impossibly tall and broad shouldered, so elegant in his simple white shirt and slacks, that Elias felt a great deal shorter and sloppier in his presence. He seemed in a league completely separate from that of the other club members and anyone Elias had ever met.

    'Elias! What a pleasant surprise.'

    Elias shook the proffered hand and marveled, both at its warmth and that of the baron's unaccountably wide smile.

    'Yeah, uh, likewise. I suppose I should have called ahead, but I was already out and...'

    'It's of no concern. Come and sit down.' He motioned to a pair of soft leather armchairs before a fireplace. They sat, angled to face each other more directly.

    "Do you like wine? I'll have Gunnar bring you a glass."

    "It's a bit early for me."

    "Oh, it's only wine. I'd feel rather a bad host if I partook and left you bare."

    Elias nodded politely, unsure how to refuse the offer again without being rude. Taking this for assent, the baron called over an impeccably dressed servant and murmured a command in Dutch. The servant disappeared, leaving them alone.

    The baron said nothing further, and Elias' tongue shriveled up within his mouth and became useless. All the questions he'd conceived before the visit and the charm he'd perfected in front of the mirror were consigned to oblivion, and he could only sit quietly wishing he gotten out more in the past months. Elias glanced up from the floor long enough to find the baron openly staring, making no effort to avert his gaze when their eyes met. Elias quickly reacquainted his gaze with the oriental rug below them, wondering what he was supposed to say and drawing a blank.

    His salvation came in the form of the servant returning with the wine. After he'd left, the baron took a small sip from his own glass before venturing to speak.

    "Now that's settled, you'll tell me about yourself. What is it now that brings you to Holland from America? What is it you write, exactly? How did you learn about the club? What precisely motivated you to contact me?" The baron leaned forward as he rattled off his list, his dark eyes boring into Elias' own. His usual smile was gone, leaving his countenance barely expectant. He wanted no distractions from the answers.

    "Well, Baron--"

    "You'll call me Frans, I hope."

    "I'm not really sure where to begin..."

    Elias knew immediately that he had answered incorrectly. Frans frowned and settled back in his seat, his gaze unwavering. ...
    "

    That's short and rough but I think you could get the point, right? The creepiness on the part of the baron is meant to be ambiguous (at least until later on when the scene could be reinterpreted in light of new information). I was having a hard time conveying this well in the first draft (which this is from) but now that I've gotten advice from others in this thread I can of course inject more body language/creepy charismatic guy things as needed.
     
  19. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    He certainly seemed quite intimidating to me. The way you described his unwavering gaze made me feel quite uncomfortable. It was quite clear be was also highly manipulative from the way he wouldn't take no for an answer. I also liked the way he formed requests as commands: "You'll call me Frans, I hope".

    I think you're on the right lines here. Since this is the first time Elias is meeting him, you may want to keep it subtle. Over time you can have him carry out more of these behaviours to gradually have him become more and more creepy and manipulative over time. Perhaps as Elias gains confidence and begins to resist the Baron, he will have to up the ante and become more obviously manipulative!
     
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  20. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Thanks. I'm mostly trying to use the advice in the thread to make this meeting scene slightly off-kilter while leaving room for Frans to make a smooth recovery and still appear likable, and to find the big "this guy is scary" red flags to use later on in the story. Any input beyond what was already posted is of course welcome.

    I think I might strip away the excessive eye contact and leave behind the rest (voicing requests as commands, ignoring or outright refusing "no" answers) so that he could come across as bossy/pushy on first meeting and not outright scary.
     
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2016
  21. John Kirk
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    John Kirk New Member

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    I think you've done a great job in creating a creepy character, there.

    As a rule of thumb, if you're going for creepy rather than scary, what you need to do is create an aura of uncertainty around a character as to whether he or she is dangerous. If someone's coming at you with a knife, that's not creepy. That's dangerous and your brain is able to immediately provide you with a definite course of action: protect yourself.

    One good way to make something creepy is to juxtapose two normal everyday concepts in a way that is unfamiliar. For example: a cuddly walking teddy bear with a big-wide grin of apparently human teeth seems creepy, not because teddy bears or human teeth are creepy in themselves, but because they don't ordinarily go together. You wouldn't immediately know what to expect or how to react if you were to see such a thing.

    As another example. having a character act in ways inappropriate for their age or social role can be creepy as well. Describing a character as collecting Barbie Dolls in and of itself isn't the least bit creepy. But, if you describe the Barbie-collecting character as also being a Youth Minister at a local church, that suddenly seems creepy. You begin to wonder what the motivation of the character is in collecting Barbie Dolls. Do they really have an interest in Barbie Dolls, or do they use Barbie Dolls as a way to manipulate children? Does this indicate the character is dangerous? Maybe, but maybe not. There are hints that something is off. But, you don't know for certain. The ambiguous juxtaposition of two such clashing aspects in a single character is creepy.

    I'm a RPG game designer, rather than a fiction writer. But, I've used this concept to good effect in my games. One of the best examples or my own use of this juxtaposition principle was when I introduced the ghost of a toddler into a game session. I described a small tomb containing a child-sized coffin. As they entered the chamber, they saw nothing unusual, but heard the light-hearted giggles of a child and the pitter-patter of little feet running by them. It totally creeped out the players. They didn't know how to react to such a thing. In their minds, ghosts are usually dangerous and scary. But, playful children are the exact opposite. This sent chills down their spines as they were uncertain about how to handle the situation.
     
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  22. Son Gon
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    Son Gon Member

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    It's really easy.

    You need distractions, a "top layer" of story that hides the true "bottom layer".

    An audience will immediately look for the purpose in every scene you give them, so if you have a character act in a creepy way, the reader will instantly know you plan to do something creepier with them later.

    Since the reader knows what you have in store the minute they hear creepy talk, your best bet is to admit it, BUT have have his creepiness serve an immediate smaller purpose in order to satiate the reader. Think of it like as a vaccine meant to put the illness out of reader's mind.

    Never act like you're not hiding something when it's obvious it'll be re-implemented later. Reader's get mad when they're treated like babies.

    DIFFERENT METHODS:

    1. Serve an immediate purpose:
    Put a problem in the Hero's way that only the villain can solve using creepiness. Think about it. By solving a problem you've been actively building up and thus serving a purpose with his behavior, you've justified the need for his creepy trait and now the reader won't dig any deeper.

    2. Don't fucking play:
    The hero simply shouldn't say anything about the secret villain that even slightly eludes to a greater purpose for his character. The reader knows how setup works, and they'll see right through you.
     
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  23. Middie
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    Middie Member

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    My freshman year of college, I met a couple people who (without going into too much detail) wanted me to join a group that they were in and ended up being pretty manipulative in doing so. Its definitely a different situation than your story, but maybe a personal experience might offer something? I'll keep it vague as to which organization it was.

    One of the first things the first girl did was ask for my phone number, even though I had only talked to her for a couple of minutes. She made it seem pretty casual -- I was on my way to class, so she asked for my number so that we could continue our conversation later -- and I gave it to her because she was so friendly and I didn't want to be rude. That was mistake #1.
    Another thing they did was only give me part of the information, but make it seem like they weren't trying to mislead me. The girl I met invited me to an event on campus, but when I showed up, it was just me, her, and one other girl from their organization. Again, not wanting to be rude becuase they were so nice, I decided to stay and talk to them for a while. I'm almost certain now that they knew I was expecting more people to be there, because I was more likely to show up that way, but I was convinced that I just misunderstood.
    They would also make it seem like we were always on the same page, even when we were not. If I would say something regarding the main topic of our conversations, they would almost always agree with me, but with a strange form of reasoning -- I would say something, they would take it and connect it to something else, and state that they believed that same thing.
    The most manipulative thing they did, however, was take my own words and twist them to fit what they were saying. I remember they would make pretty simple statements that I thought were pretty obvious, and ask if I agreed. Later on, however, they would connect these statements together. They came to a conclusion that I didn't agree with, but they reminded me of what I agreed to earlier. "Didn't you say you thought _____?" "Didn't you say you believed ______?" "Didn't you say that _______?" "Well, these statements all lead to the conclusion that ______, and if you agree with those statements..."
    It wasn't until this last part that I realized what they were doing: they tried to get me to say something that I didn't beleive. They didn't want a head nod, or an "I guess...", they wanted me to state the exact words as if I believed it myself. It was meant to be subtle, I'm sure. They never said "repeat after me," or "read this sentence back." They would say something along the lines of: "You agree that ____, you agree that ____, and you agree that ____. Therefore..." and expect me to finish the sentence. That was when red flags began waving like crazy, and I realized I needed to get out of that situation.

    So, from my experiences, people like that will always try to make it seem like you're on the same page, and that everything they're saying was your idea, or something that you agreed with. They'll give you only part of the information, and when you realize they meant something different, you assume it's because you just misunderstood, that it was your mistake. They'll have you agree to things that seem simple, but then twist your own words to make it seem like you said something you didn't. They'll also make sure they have a way to contact you pretty early on, which can make it pretty hard to get out of the situation once you're in. In addition to it all, they always act incredibly friendly, so you don't question their intentions and don't want to be rude by arguing. It's definitely something that's quite unnerving to look back on.
     
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  24. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    One other thing I could suggest would be to read The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's quite a frustrating book to read with a loose, meandering plot and the main character constantly being thwarted. However, the other characters are obsequiously charming and yet manage to manipulate the MC constantly into following their agenda. They are a great example of characters which are controlling and manipulative, and the way they communicate this so charmingly makes them seem very, very creepy. I had to read the book on bursts as there was a constant sense of doom around the MC which made it quite a depressing book to read, but it might help you even if you just read some extracts.
     
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  25. mashers
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    mashers Senior Member

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    Sorry to keep posting, but I keep having ideas about this. It's an interesting thought experiment for me. What has just occurred to me is the perception of disappointment. Manipulative people make other people do what they want by expressing that they will be disappointed if they don't. Initially this can be indirect ("Oh, it wouldn't be the same without you!") but over time, as the character gets more of a hold over the 'victim', they can become more direct about it, making statements about the other person to make it hard for them to say no ("I know you wouldn't want to let me down").
     

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