How to Disguise Characters Without Confusing Readers

Original image credit: Hanumann,
Original image credit: Hanumann,

In the spirit of Halloween here in the good old USA, let’s talk about what to do when your characters assume disguises, costumes, false identities, secret identities, and so forth.

This Happens a Lot. I Mean, a Lot.

I’ve lately been rereading the Harry Potter series and re-watching my old Lord of the Rings DVD box set, because I have a lot of friends and an active social life.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the need to be someone you’re not is legion in literature, especially in fantasy works. This means that whatever new and cool thing you think you’re doing in your story, your reader has seen a variation of it before, and his or her brain has not yet exploded. So the first thing I want you to do, if you’re one of those hand-wringing kinds of writers who worries about such tings is: relax. It’s been done before.

What Happens in the First Person POV

Not a whole heck of a lot. Once you’ve described the transformation process, if there was one, or the rationale behind assuming a new identity (if no physical transformation took place), you simply must make sure the rest of your hoodwinked supporting characters refer to your undercover protagonist by their new given name, and have the protagonist respond and internally dialogue just the same as he or she always has. If they are supposed to acquire new behavioral characteristics as a result of the new identity, make sure you show the internal struggle and/or habit-breaking they’re experiencing.

What Happens in the Second Person POV

Same as First Person, but a whole lot more pronouns.

What Happens in Third Person POV (Both Limited and Omniscient)

Much depends upon the intent of your character in redefining his or her identity.

In the novels I’m rereading, the protagonists adopt disguises in order to accomplish tasks. It’s never their intent to assume their new identities long-term. Therefore, they refer to, and think of, themselves and each other using their real names.

For example, every time the heroes in any of the Harry Potter books drink Polyjuice Potion (a serum that changes appearances), the unseen (limited third-person POV) narrator continues to refer to Harry, Ron and Hermione by their real names, without missing a beat.

Time is spent detailing the effects and oddities of their transformed bodies, but you, the reader, are never confused by who the real characters are, and who the impostors are. (In case you were wondering, that’s the goal.)

However, in other novels, a character may prefer to assume a new identity permanently, a la Caitlyn Jenner, and you’re in a bit of a bigger pickle. It’s easy to fool your other characters; it’s much more difficult to get your readers to switch their conception of your character midway through the book.he trick is to handle it for the reader the way your character is handling the identity switch internally. Think: Lots of dialogue, lots of reminding oneself of his or her new name, lots of mirror, glancing to absorb new features, lots of taking-in of all of the features of his or her new name and likeness.

Changing over to calling your character by his new name should be immediate, but should be heavily accompanied by the sort of pathos you’d expect if this was real life (don’t forget they have to change their passports, driver licenses, government IDs, and birth certificates).

Have you ever switched a character’s identity? Was it confusing? Share your experience in the comments.