If you’re going to live a lie, you better do it well. This applies as much to your characters as they do to real life, as one inept conman found.
As I’ve said before, writing is a form of lying and as such you need to maintain the suspension of disbelief, the big lie, or else people will see through it.
This means that if you create a character, all their actions have to be believeable – from their mannerisms, reactions, actions and speech. As Allan Debenham found to his cost.
Louis Theroux and his fat lookalike
He’s just been found guilty of trying to con a pub out of a couple of night’s free accommodation, and a cabbie out of a ride, by pretending to be TV presenter Louis Theroux.
Louis is one of my favourite presenters due to his interviewing, Socratic questioning style, plus he has some of the sharpest DVD sleeve notes around. And he could be a good one to mimic – Debenham looks vaguely like him, Theroux is not too big a celebrity for everyone to know intimately, and he said that he had “put on weight”.
However, the landlady clearly knew enough to know that the Oxford-educated presenter would not ask for a “packet of fags”.
Creating characters – and getting them wrong
The story raised a few laughs around the country, not least from Theroux:
I love that it wasn’t his appearance that tipped them off but the fact that he asked for “fags” not “cigarettes” #louistherouxpubfraud
— Louis Theroux (@louistheroux) June 14, 2013
But there are lessons for writers from this. First, it demonstrates that people are good at detecting something that is out of character.
If a writer does their job well then the audience should not only have a clear idea it is them speaking, but they form their own expectations for them.
In this case, rightly or wrongly, the landlady thought that Theroux would ask for cigarettes.
Poorly written characters
Similarly, the film of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a lot wrong with it, but the one that jarred for me was that Dorian Gray, the Oscar Wilde penned character, had all the wit of a teenager who’d just discovered YouTube comments. (Example: “I hoped I’d get to nail you one more time. Didn’t think it’d be literally.”)
By contrast, Mad Men has done an excellent job of how Don Draper constructed his lie, as well as the price and behaviour that goes with it.
The lesson here is that, whether you’re creating a character, or living a lie, consistency is the key. Or else you will, like Louis and his doppelganger, either end up behind bars or getting rejected.