1. Adam Bolander

    Adam Bolander Senior Member

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    Keeping Main Character's Identity Secret?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Adam Bolander, Aug 4, 2020.

    I had a neat idea, but I'm not sure how well it'd go over with readers. The main character of this story goes by a certain name and looks a certain way, but openly admits that his real name and real appearance are completely different. Who he is, though, he never tells. The most he'll say is that he promised himself he'd never look at "that face" in the mirror again for as long as he lives. At the end, the villain thinks they've revealed his secret identity, but it turns out that it was just another layer of his disguise and the readers never actually find out who he is.
    What do you think?
     
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  2. making tracks

    making tracks Active Member

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    I think it's an interesting idea, and as long as you still get a good sense of the character's personality and are able to put together an image for yourself it could be fun. If I remember correctly (though it was years ago I read it) the Bourbon Kid in the Book With No Name remains shrouded in mystery for the first novel and that worked. I'm sure there's other examples out there.
     
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  3. Fervidor

    Fervidor Senior Member

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    This actually feels familiar somehow. Like, I think I've seen this done, I just can't put my finger on it.

    Anyway, it's an interesting idea but here may be some issues to consider. Perspective would be one: It will need to be distanced from the character so that his thoughts and behavior doesn't reveal anything about who he really is. With a main character this can be tricky to pull off, and probably works best when you hand over the perspective to a different protagonist, like how Sherlock Holmes stories actually follow the perspective of Watson.

    This bring up another issue: If the character himself does not want to associate himself with his "real" self and devotes himself completely to his public identity, one might question why the secret identity matters. The point of having a secret identity is that you can take your mask off and live a normal life, can't be prosecuted for the acts of your alter ego (be it vigilantism or more "villainous" crimes) and that it keeps those close to you safe from your enemies. But if that is not a factor, it makes more sense to consider the public identity to be the real one.

    Take for example V from V for Vendetta. He's probably someone under that mask, but he's pretty much "V" full time, apparently has no family to threaten and lives in a secret hideout where he spends all his time plotting the downfall of the government. Whoever he used to be isn't terribly relevant - even what we do find out about his past only serves to inform his motivations and is of little help to his opponents. Unmasking him, literally as well as figuratively, is pointless.

    So, for the secret identity to actually matter, it has to be important to the character and leave him vulnerable somehow.
     
  4. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin A tombstone hand and a graveyard mind Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Sounds like it would work much better in film than in print.
     
  5. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Guardian-eating, tofu-reading dormivitus Supporter Contributor

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    In Transitions, Iain Banks had a character at the start who said something like "I am an unreliable narrator" who turns out to be someone and something completely other than who we are lead to expect. As much as I love the man's writing, I have a vague memory of being somewhat disappointed by the ending and not overly thrilled by the book itself. Can't really remember the story, TBH.
     
  6. shadowblade

    shadowblade New Member

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    I think it would be great, and you could also add bits where he says like (I changed it because...) or something like that, relating to his actual appearance but not giving it away. Another idea is there is like references in the book from his mind telling them a part of his real identity, and only when you piece the bits together at the end it creates them, like a puzzle but it doesn’t tell You the answer, the answer is in the book, at different stages. That’s just an idea, and I’m new, so it might not be great but :)
     
  7. .Nameless.

    .Nameless. Member

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    This makes me think of A Scanner Darkly, where the main character (Keanu Reeves in the movie) is an undercover agent who shows his real face to the people he investigates. All the rest of the time he wears a mask that cycles through random images for different parts of his face. This way, when he has to testify or speak in public, no one knows who it is. I think his voice was distorted as well. Anywho, it sounds like a good idea. There plenty of ways to that it could be done where you know the narrator is lying about who they are, even be a little tongue-in-cheek about it & play with the 4th Wall.
     
  8. GH0ST

    GH0ST Member

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    I think if you set up something like this, it would be good to eventually reveal it. Yes, the villain can uncover only that another layer, but in the end it should be revealed (at least to the reader). In my opinion that would be more satisfying.
     
  9. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Is the real identity going to turn out to be something or somebody the reader could have guessed. As in "OMG, it's HIM! I should have known!" Or is it going to be a 'What the heck is THAT creature?" kind of moment?

    Think beyond the revelation itself to what the reader's reaction will be. Then engineer the story to get the reaction you want.
     
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  10. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    What is the narrative purpose of keeping the character's identity unrevealed even to the reader? What is the story trying to say with that? A bazillion years ago I read a little Sci-Fi story where the MC was a similar mystery. It took place in what appeared to be a penal colony of some sort (they talk endlessly about how muddy it is) and the other characters engaged the MC mostly to the tune of "Is... is that who I think that is?", but the disappointing part of the story was that their surprise/shock at identifying the person (whose identity is never made known to the reader) never really panned out. I was like, fine, I don't get to know who it is, but why? I don't see what this secret is supposed to be saying to me.

    It just seemed like an idea that didn't have an end purpose in mind.
     
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  11. Laughing Rabbit

    Laughing Rabbit Active Member

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    .......
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2021
  12. LorelF

    LorelF New Member

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    It sounds a little bit like what was done in A Scanner Darkly, by Philip k Dick. The main character was an under cover cop who used futuristic technology to disguise himself to go undercover in a drug house, and he placed cameras all over the place to gather evidence. From what I remember his identity split in two and he would talk about himself in the third person because he was using mind altering drugs that were making him lose his mind. In some parts of the book he would re-watch the surveillance footage from the house and talk with other cops about the people on the tapes like they were all his roommates, though you knew one of them was him. It was very chilling.
     
  13. .Nameless.

    .Nameless. Member

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    I don't know how well the movie follows the book, but the way the ending unfolds, it makes it seem like there was more to be told. Now that I now who wrote it, I can find out if the storyline set up at the end of the movie is expanded on at all in the book. I'll have to add it to my wishlist. I'm a little disappointed to say that I've never read anything by Philip K. Dick. I want to, but I keep getting distracted with new (or at least new to me) stuff.
     
  14. PaperandPencil

    PaperandPencil Active Member

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    It seems to me like the only way to really surprise the reader about a secret identity is to never overtly mention this identity. Maybe the character can talk about a new style of clothing or a new haircut or facial hair or something to suggest without overtly telling the reader that he is trying to look different and be someone different than before.
     
  15. Andy Rafael

    Andy Rafael Member

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    I thought the same thing too. In a film it could explain things more clearly.
     
  16. Stormsong07

    Stormsong07 Contributor Contributor

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    Yeah, I feel like if a secret identity was hinted at all throughout the book, but we never find out what/who it is, that would disappoint me as a reader. Like, why bother to hint at it if you're not going to tell us?
     
  17. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    The key might be in giving enough hints that the readers can assume the identity to a reasonable degree but never be sure, with an inconclusive ending, if that makes sense?

    Like Inception - you never find out if Cob was dreaming or not. But there was enough established throughout the film that both endings are equally likely and both would be reasonable to assume. I think you'd want something like that. What I learnt early on in my writing journey is: There's a massive difference between vague and mystery. Mystery is not truly the idea of not knowing - it is the idea of not being certain. But you need to be able to make educated guesses in order to have a sense of certainty vs uncertainty. You need to give the reader something to latch onto but keep making them doubt themselves, as opposed to just not giving them anything and saying Ta-Da you never saw it coming! Yes, they never did, and that's not actually what you want.

    But the ending of Inception worked because the point was never whether one was dreaming or not. The point was reuniting Cob with his children. The point was as long as you're happy, does it matter whether it's truly real? The point was dream and reality were closer to each other than anyone had ever imagined, the two altering each other. So it didn't matter whether Cob was dreaming or not, in a way.

    If you can somehow contrast your character's identity with a theme in the story the way Inception did, you might be onto something. As Wrey said above: What's the point of this secret? What is it supposed to say?
     
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