Across the genre, fantasy has more than its fair share of shifty, manipulative types pulling strings from the shadows. Little Finger, Sand dan Glokta, Lord Vetinari.

But how do you write a character like that? Unless you spend your days in the political halls of power (or perhaps a really catty office), you might not have much direct experience with manipulation and how it works as a tool.

This article will give you a bit of an introduction – or, if you’re already au fait with cloak and dagger, maybe give you a few new tricks.

Manipulative ≠ evil

Although fantasy’s manipulative characters are often used as a contrast to a pure and honest hero (think of how Robert E Howard shows the difference between the honourable ‘savage’ Conan and the decadent smooth-talking ‘civilised’ folk he runs afoul of), not all manipulative characters are evil, or even neutral. Some of them can be good!

Manipulation is, quite simply, using others as a means to an end to achieve a goal.

Look at Gandalf. He manipulates Bilbo into joining in his adventure, uses trickery to charm hospitality out of Beorn and get Frodo to bear the One Ring, and gives Aragon a not-so-subtle shove toward his destiny as king. And Gandalf is definitely not evil – he’s basically wizard-Jesus!

So, what does a manipulative character look like? 

During my LARP (live-action roleplay) days, you’d be amazed at how many players would loudly and enthusiastically tell you their character was an absolute bastard master manipulator who was Machiavellian, ruthless to the core, etc. Only, these characters never were. Partly because you could see what they were doing from a mile away, and partly because properly manipulative people don’t go around announcing to the world how devious and untrustworthy they are.

Don’t get me wrong, in the right type of setting, there is absolutely a place for Grand Vizier Snivalis Promise-Twister. But generally speaking, there has to be at least a certain level of trust or respect others have for the manipulative character. Otherwise, why would the person being manipulated want to listen to them or care what they have to say?

If someone does have a dodgy reputation, the person being manipulated needs to at least believe the manipulator has the same goals or their best interests at heart. Or the manipulator just need to be worth keeping around.

The best advice I can give is show, don’t tell. Yes, I know it’s a cliché. But in this case, it’s true. If you want readers to know that a character is manipulative, have them manipulate someone. Joe Abercrombie is especially good at this when he writes about Sand dan Glokta really putting the screws on someone at the start of The Blade Itself.

The other thing you can do is have other characters be aware of a manipulator’s reputation. Describe how they shift their body language. Change the other characters’ dialogue to be more cautious in their presence, or have them hesitate before revealing any information to this person, fearing it will come back to haunt them.

That brings up another important trait: manipulative characters are always looking for more information. Have them ask questions, get them involved in conversations that reveal juicy information, and get them to reveal tit-for-tat secrets, all with a view towards furthering their agenda. 

What forms can manipulation take? 

The CIA, gawd bless ’em, have a nifty little acronym to explain why an agent turns traitor, which can be regarded as the ultimate type of manipulation. It’s M.I.C.E.





Let’s go through this snappy mnemonic device letter by letter. To help put things in a fantasy context, our examples will pretend a manipulative noble is looking to persuade a king to go to war.


This is the most forward type of manipulation. Either ‘I will give you stuff if you do this thing’ or ‘If you don’t do this thing, you will lose your stuff’. It’s most effective against greedy or desperate people who need cash.

‘Majesty, the kingdom of Nextdooria do not respect our mineral rights in the Long Fang mountains. If we do not go to war, they will plunder the treasures that are rightly yours.’


Ideological manipulation relies on the target’s sense of right and wrong. What do they believe? This type of manipulation will be based on stopping something ‘evil’, defending something ‘good’, or calling on a sense of duty.

‘Every day the marauders of Nexdooria raid and enslave your subjects. Majesty, the land cries out for your protection. Will you answer it?’


Blackmail. This is the threat of revealing damaging information or delivering some other punishment if the target doesn’t do as the manipulator wishes, forcing the target to choose between the lesser of two evils. This can be particularly effective if the manipulator is not actually the one withholding the damaging information, but manipulating their target by threatening that someone else may reveal it.

‘My king, there are rumours – false, of course – that the ruler of Nextdooria has had carnal knowledge of her majesty the queen. If we allow these slanders to continue unanswered, then the effect upon the realm would be disastrous.


An appeal to pride. This is the polar opposite of Ideology, which relies on external pressures, as it focuses on the target’s internal sense of self-importance and vanity. It could focus on the target’s strength, power, or anything else that they consider important. The common denominator is a flattering comment. Vain and impetuous characters are particularly susceptible to this kind of manipulation. 

‘Our armies stand ready at your command! Each man would gladly give his life for his beloved king, and will fight all the more bravely knowing that you take to the field with them.’    

Is that a threat?

Threats are a type of manipulation all on their own. They range from the most basic (‘Give me your dinner money, or I’ll bash you’) to extremely subtle and sophisticated forms of intimidation.

For a threat to work, it needs to be plausible. Bluffs have their place, but threats create tension in a scene when readers know that the person doing the threatening is both willing and capable of carrying them out. When Conan threatens to crush someone’s skull like a grape, you know damn well that he’d do it in a heartbeat.

Let’s look at three varieties of threats: threats of violence, veiled threats, direct threats, and indirect threats.

Threats of violence

Threats of violence are literally just that. They’re blackmail in the most basic terms: ‘Either you’re going to give me what I want, or I’m going to jab you in the gums with this screwdriver.’

As well as violence to the person, this threat can include threats to property. Crude and thuggish characters favour this kind of threat as it plays to their strengths. However, this can also be used by a more bookish character employing others to do violence for them. An elderly Inquisitor isn’t himself much of a threat, but you can bet he’s got enough hired goons on the payroll to break a few kneecaps for him when he needs them to.

Veiled threats

On the other end of the spectrum, veiled threats are the mark of a more sophisticated mind. They are vague in both topic and consequence, leaving the subject to fill in the blanks with their imagination: ‘You’re asking a lot of questions. Questions can be very dangerous things if you don’t like the answers.’

The important thing about a veiled threat is that it strikes the balance between letting the target know they are being threatened and having plausible deniability. These are good for social situations.

Direct threats

A direct threat targets one specific person or institution: ‘You’d better watch yourself. If I find out you’ve been holding out on your guild dues, you’re a dead man.’

This is when a character is really showing their hand and making a targeted show of strength.

Indirect threats

Indirect threats can affect individuals, but they’re more general: ‘Mark my words and mark them well. Any thief who seeks to shortchange me or the guild master will die a slow and horrible death. That is a promise.’

In the end…

All these tools are at your character’s disposal, but if they are going to be any use, the character needs an agenda. All manipulative characters need to have a motive. This isn’t limited to their long-term goal. Think also about what they want to achieve in each scene and what they are prepared to do to achieve it. 

Jack Shannon is a massive nerd. He’s also the author of Brigandine, a Grimdark fantasy novel full of swords, bloodshed, and Lovecraftian horrors. If you like your books sweary, bloody, and just a bit funny, why not give it a read?

Do you write fantasy or science fiction?

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