i’m writing a story set in a victorian-esque fantasy world, and i was wondering what sort of unique weapon i could give my protagonist? (she’s a snarky, agile con artist who later develops a dark form of pyromancy, if the detail helps.) it gets boring reading about the same old pistols or swords.

Well, she’s got her razor wit, right? If your character is a confidence artist, that is her weapon. The way she defends herself is by lying. Bringing a weapon in is going to actively make her job harder while simultaneously functioning as a security blanket for the audience. So, the real answer is to start playing without a net.

This is one of those truths for spies and con artists. If the job doesn’t require a weapon, and your cover doesn’t allow for one, you don’t bring one. If your character is bringing a sword or revolver into a meeting while pretending to be a betrayed heiress, or officer’s widow, it’s going to raise some serious questions.

If she’s pretending to be a returning war hero, a police investigator, or some kind of bounty hunter, then that’s different, and the weapons are part of her cover. At that point she needs to know enough about the weapons to look like they’re a natural part of her day to day life. But, the weapons she carries will be defined by what her cover identity would need, not what she wants to carry.

Also, for a con artist, roles like that are better suited to corroborating another character’s con, not running their own. She’s there to put pressure on the mark suggesting that the real con artist really is being framed for murder/the relative of an unjustly disgraced soldier, or something similar.

What your character really needs is the ability to talk their way out of trouble, especially when their plan starts to fall apart. It takes a lot more guts to walk unarmed into a place where the residents will kill you if they realize you’re deceiving them. And, that’s the kind of brinksmanship a good con artist narrative thrives on.

If things start to go sideways, her recourse needs to be lying, not shooting her way out. That is her area of expertise, after all. She needs a convincing explanation for everything, especially after her lies start to come to light. Things that rationalize them, make them look like they are really are the truth. To paraphrase Burn Notice, the solution to a blown cover is to play it harder, go deeper and own the illusion, because it’s the only way to make it real enough to save her life. In that moment she needs to believe her lies, without forgetting the truth.

Writing a character that lies isn’t about someone who fast talks their way out of problems. It’s about writing a character who can keep their eye on the objective reality, and twist it just enough to leave other characters a little off balance, second guessing what they know, and lashing out at the wrong people. Your characters can tell big lies, but when they do, they need to do the work to support it.

Someone who is a pathological liar will make a terrible con artist or spy. The ability to keep one eye firmly fixed on objective reality, is a vital compass for them to gauge what they can get away with. They need to keep their lies within a narrow range of reality or the characters around them will start to pick up on something being off. For someone who lies pathologically, that’s just not possible. Their lies are a defensive mechanism, that has more to do with keeping them “safe,” and people do pick up on that over time, no matter how badly they want to believe.

The problem with pathological liars ultimately boils down to a truth about con artists . What your con artist does and says isn’t about them. The role they choose to play is defined by who the mark is, not your character’s preferences. The lies they tell need to be tailored to the victim, not what your character wants. The con artist needs to understand the social rules for the society they’re infiltrating, which for a Victorian setting is a fairly impressive skill set in its own right.

Someone who lies about who they are is, paradoxically, easier to write than to actually do. This is because you’re already engaging in this behavior, as the writer. You’re putting yourself into their life. You just need to write two characters instead of one; your con artist, and the person they’re pretending to be. Again, it is just one more character in your story. If your con artist isn’t a PoV character, this becomes even easier, because you need to keep a rough idea of what their real goals are in the back of your mind, but they should just play their cover on a scene to scene basis.

So, some good con artists in fiction to look at.

The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’ve only ever seen the film, though I’ve heard very good things about the original novel by Patricia Highsmith. Either way, the story focuses on a sociopath that manipulates the people around him to get what he wants, its half serial killer in training half con man.

Burn Notice, is technically about spies. But the ultimately this is almost a how-to on manipulating people without resorting to unnecessary violence. It offers some good explanations on how to provoke people into doing what you want, and keeping them on the hook, even when things start coming apart.

Payback: The Director’s Cut. This is one of those rare cases where the difference between the theatrical and director’s cut is flat out a different film, not just one with some extra bits tacked on, that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. The lead character is, primarily, a con artist. I wouldn’t list it, but it does a pretty decent job of presenting someone juggling a lot of other characters simultaneously.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre is another spy piece. But, the focus is on identifying and outing a mole. I’m recommending it, because you should pay close attention the the lies the mole used to keep himself from being exposed.

Finally, read up on the social structures of the Victorian era. This is one of those things that sounds intuitive, but it’s really not, and we’ve both seen a lot of writers try to mimic it without research to terrible effect.

I’d suggest starting with the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. None of the adaptations will give you what you need, trash them right now, don’t even think about them. Pay attention to what Holmes is looking at, and the social systems he’s examining and prodding, not what you think is normal, or his behavior, because the character is extremely eccentric for the world he’s navigating.

If this is aiming to be a professional piece, it might be worth digging up The Norton Anthology of British Literature. Specifically the second collection. This is far more useful for the footnotes and commentaries that explain the state of the world during the Victorian era, and events in it, than just sampling some lit from the period. Remember, the time frame you’re looking at was dominated by massive upheaval. The selection of lit from the period is a massive jumble of discussions on different issues. From Austen to Gaskell to Dickens and beyond, these stories revolve around a radically changing world.

You have the Industrial Revolution, Slavery, Child Labor, Women’s Rights, Colonialism (This was the height of the British Empire, including India, Australia, China, portions of Africa, and beyond), Mass Migration, the development of a true Middle Class, Education, extreme poverty, Worker’s Rights, Unions, Poor Houses, Work Houses, Displacement, and the list goes on. It was not a pastoral, “things are as they’ve always been,” fantasy, even though there were people trying to shove their fingers in their ears and pretend the outside world wasn’t happening.

It’s a fascinating period in history, but also a difficult one to get right. Police, Criminals, the Penitentiary system, it all looked very different during the Victorian period. Even if this is “fantasy”, you need to understand the systems at work and what your character will be facing if she gets caught.

Incidentally you might also want to research the etymology of “con artist,” I have the suspicion that the abbreviated form is early 20th century slang, and inappropriate for a faux Victorian setting.

Similarly, unless there’s a Queen Victoria somewhere in your setting, establishing the tone for that era, the term “Victorian” is going to be alien to your characters.

-Starke

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.