What’s Conflict got to do with it

question mark in condensation on rainy window

One the most important (and least discussed) ways to create drama in a story is to use disguise and deception. Disguise and deception were central to much of the best plotted literature of the 19th century. Witness their importance to Les Misérables, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and A Tale of Two Cities. In Les Misérables, arguably the greatest fiction work of that period or any period, crucial to its drama is Jean Valjean assuming a false identity and living in fear of his lie being uncovered by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. If Valjean’s deception is unmasked, he will be destroyed.
An example of films brilliantly using disguise and deception are the Zorro stories, especially The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power. In Mark of Zorro, Don Diego Vega has three personas in his characterization: the strong and real in private Don Diego, the pretending public fop Diego, and the disguised swashbuckling Zorro. These three personas conflict with each other. A protagonist having multiple, conflicting personas based on deception is also integral to the drama of some of the most popular modern costumed hero stories. Take, for instance, Clark Kent in the Superman stories. There is the real Clark, a strong and intelligent man mostly only experienced by himself and his parents. Then there is the Clark Kent public disguise, the mild-mannered reporter. And, of course, the public hero in suit and cape, Superman. A similar three-part personality makes up the character Batman. Having three personas in one character is an important reason why Batman, Superman, and Zorro are among the most interesting and popular costumed heroes. One character having three personas creates internal conflict in that character, difficult complications for the hero as he battles for justice in the world, and dramatic and amusing irony for the audience.
To expand on just one of these points, let’s look at some of the significant dramatic effects of using irony. A good story is not just interesting events, but also how these events are told. In The Mark of Zorro, for example, Don Diego’s deceptions are, of course, played ironically. We, the audience, know the deceptions, but most of the other characters do not; thus we omnisciently and amusingly see and understand all of Don Diego/Zorro’s tricks and wits against his enemies, who are ignorant of his deceptions and humor. On the simple level, much of the humor in The Mark of Zorro flows from Diego assuming his public disguise and preening as a dandy moaning about the California heat, his fatigue from dancing, and his lateness because his “bath water was tepid.” On a deeper level, the fun in these scenes is heightened by the audience knowing that Don Diego is really playing a game with his enemies and that everything he says has two meanings.
To emphasize the importance of disguise and deception, let’s look briefly at two contemporary TV examples of its use. Let’s first consider The Night Manager mini-series. Christopher Pine, a hotel night manager, uses deception to gain access to billionaire arms dealer Richard Roper so he can destroy him. Much of the suspense of the show comes from the threat to Pine if his deception is exposed. Roper will kill him. Another popular modern show that well uses disguise and deception is Daredevil. Blind man Matt Murdock fights for justice in the day time as a lawyer, but at night he protects his city as the disguised vigilante Daredevil. Daredevil not only disguises his true identity from his enemies, but he also deceives his best friend and law partner Foggy about his dual identity. This deception causes complications in Murdock/Daredevil’s day and night work, as well as his relationship with Foggy, especially when Foggy finally learns that his best friend has deceived him.
So when plotting your next story, do remember to think carefully about how one of your major characters might use disguise and deception to attain his or her goals. Disguise and deception is one of the best ways to add intriguing layers to your characters and great danger and suspense to their goals and conflicts.  
Scott McConnell is writer/producer/script consultant in Los Angeles and Melbourne. Read more of Scott’s reviews and writing tips at https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell/
An earlier full-length version of this article appeared in The Objective Standard and on Linkedin.