Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Depiction Part 28 - Depicting A Grifter And His Mark by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Part 28
Depicting A Grifter And His Mark
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Index to the Depiction Series is here:

During this long series on how to SHOW DON'T TELL many intangible story elements such as Nostalgia, Love, Hatred, Fury, Alien Culture, whole battlefields, Paranormal Forces, and so on, we have delved into the major headlines of the times, searched history, read a lot of novels, and thought deeply about lofty topics.

Now let's examine a kind of Relationship that generates story both in everyday real life and in novels. 

As Romance writers, we know that one of the greatest turn-ons in a Relationship is a disparity of "power" (the dominatrix, the he-man hunk, Kings, Princes falling in love with Cinderella, Pygmalion, etc.).

A Power disparity can also be a huge buzzkill for Romance of any kind.

Humans easily hate people who are "different" -- and one visible difference is wealth which translates into the power to solve or avoid problems which literally kill ordinary people.

The Aristocrat drunken gambler who commits a crime, meets the constable on the street and is offered a ride home.  The day-laborer drunken gambler who commits the same crime is pilloried, maybe beaten and abused first, certainly doomed to death or a life as a cripple.


Disparity of social position, often denoted by gender, also has worked that way in some cultures throughout history.  Even today there are places where the law discounts a woman's word and disallows women from owning or controlling wealth and the power that comes with it.

We see many headlines, pushed by expensive and slick Press Releases so that the headline appears from a number of sources simultaneously, thus hammering home the impression that this item is a)true and b)important.

The world of the Press Release, and the world of media editorial selectivity are both closed to your average novel reader.

We are admonished to "check your sources" -- to disbelieve Fake News because it come from this or that media outlet.  This admonishment is, itself, suspicious -- as audience, you "pay" all those people to check the truth of an item before disseminating it.  You pay with suffering through commercials and occasionally buying something.

Media editors and reporters (and Press Release writers who are Public Relations experts) are paid (often not very well) to nail down 3 sources on each news item, and each of the 3 must be "independent" of the others -- in other words, not reprinting the same Press Release.

Reporters are paid to sift through Press Releases and find the things you need to know -- then make phone calls, go to events, interview real people (not Public Relations representatives) and determine if the Press Release is true and that the wording gives the facts, without spin.

Every news story arriving in your inbox has multiple hours of depressing, often futile drudgery and boredom behind it.  Or if it does not, then it should.


The writer has to discover a view of human society in general (through history -- based on human nature), then use the art of storytelling to select details that sketch that view for the reader.

Art is a selective representation of reality -- and the screen used to select which details to include (and exclude) is called THEME. 

Here are some examples of THEME for a novel about a Grifter and his Mark.

1) The Media Always Lies

2) The Media Always Tells The Truth

3) The Media Spins A Narrative Tale To Control Popular Vote

4) The Media Serves The Wealthy Masters Who Own The Outlet

5) The Media Panders To Its Audience To Make A Profit

6) The Media Hires Honest Kids And Turns Them Into Grifters

7) There Is Nothing Wrong With Being A Grifter If You Use The Talent To Righteous Purpose

Notice those are statements.  THEME can also be stated as a Question - and the story does not have to ram an answer into the reader's mind. 

The idea that a scam artist can be righteous is the core of many TV Series, very popular ones, such as

It Takes A Thief

Remington Steele


White Collar




The thesis behind these shows and so many similar ones is that the End Justifies The Means. 

You can lie, cheat, misdirect, fool, and manipulate people and it is perfectly righteous, justified, provided it is for their own good.

The thesis behind "for their own good" is that people don't know what is good for them. 

So humans who know what's good are morally obligated to do (any nefarious deed) to force ignorant humans to choose what is good for them - a free will choice. 

After so many decades of very popular, extremely well made TV Series based on the theme of "End Justifies Means" general audiences see nothing wrong with that. 

So you can use this ploy to depict truly admirable characters that the reader will embrace whole heartedly.

You can create a Character who believes that if you love someone, it is perfectly justified to trick them into loving you back. 

You dress to attract them, choose a perfume that doesn't make them sneeze even if it stinks to you, wear wicked high heels that sculpt your legs, laugh at their jokes, hide your intelligence, and pretend you like sports and getting drunk.  Wear a skirt you can't run in so they have you trapped. 

Or if you are a guy, you choose gifts to trigger gratitude so you can get her into bed, you take her to places you can't afford, laugh at her bad jokes, flatter and tease her into thinking you like her because of her formidable achievements not her bra size or pert ass.

In other words, when someone attracts your sexual interest, you may behave in ways you would not ordinarily choose to, for the purpose of attracting their sexual interest to you.  This is not considered dishonest until after the Honeymoon. 

Every human knows the "game" and is expected to discount the dis-information.  If you are naive enough to believe what you see, you get what you deserve. 

Most humans don't think those courting behaviors make the person into a grifter, or the beloved into a Mark.

Maybe your Aliens look at flirtation and the age old human mating dance that way -- as dishonest and abuse of power.

Yes, normal human behavior, perfectly well sanctioned by society and firmly counted on by the Mark, could easily be seen as reprehensible power abuse.

Aliens could easily define humanity by the disparity in "power" between the genders -- all women are weak, all men strong. 

To a human, a disparity of "power" in a relationship can be crazy-sexy or serious buzzkill.

The entire profession of Public Relations (PR) is founded on the use of advanced mathematics and "big data" to gain power over and control the behavior of large segments of the population (for their own good).


Statistics has been the mainstay of tricking people for a long time.  Things may be changing.

Tricking people pays very well.

So tricksters have become more proficient as audiences have become more savy.

If you are constructing a Romance novel, consider whether one of your characters is 'conning' the other.  Then decide when in the novel you want your reader to twig to the trick. 

One way to be transparent to the reader while making an admirable, smart, savvy Character completely oblivious to the trick is to use the False Hobson's Choice.

First establish that the Character to be tricked understands their life and the world as a series of Free Will Choices -- but all options are listed in a menu that this Character does not know is populated with the options a powerful person approves of.

To be well and truly tricked, a Character must feel perfectly free to choose otherwise.  At the point in the novel where you reveal the trick (usually 3/4 point), the Character comes to understand that all the options available for Free Will Choice actually lead to exactly the same result, "You Are Screwed." 


The False Hobson's Choice has been discussed previously.




The Hobson's Choice concept of a Free Choice where the only item on the options menu is 1 thing is an old tradition explained here:


By extension, if all the items on the options menu are actually the same thing by different names, you also have the ploy of the Hobson's Choice, which gives power over the naive victim to the perpetrator.

You could set a hot Romance in a political election where your Main Character sleuths out the hidden (by PR tricks) fact that both candidates are beholden to the same Big Money Donor, and will implement that Donor's agenda. 

The "aristocrats" who pull the strings on today's Earth (most all countries) don't care who wins, but only that the people gladly accept the aristocrat's agenda as their free will choice. 

You can translate that Situation and the set of Themes to a setting such as an online Dating Service that might be manipulating marriages for the purpose of guiding human genetics.

Politics set in a Galactic Civilization would qualify as Science Fiction Romance, as would Romance set in a Genetics Lab.

Maybe a dating service is funded by a University Department that obtained the Grant for genetics research.

Maybe the University Department head is an Alien sent here to reshape human genetics (to what purpose?)

Or you can rip an issue from modern headlines that will likely persist for many decades, and set the story on some planet lightyears away where some human colonists crash among Aliens.

C. J. Cherryh's fabulous Foreigner Series uses that setting to entangle the reader in Alien politics.

Maybe your Alien Planet, infested with a small but growing colony of humans, belongs to a galactic consortium of planets.  The humans are a problem - politically, maybe genetically, maybe disease breeders, maybe disseminating some religion.  The Consortium insists the planet choose between being Alien Dominated or Human Dominated (but humans are a minority).

It would likely be a human who notes that all either/or choices between two elements that are equally odious are attempts to dominate by mental castration.

Either/or choices are based on the Aristotelian model of the universe which views reality as finite and "yes" as precluding "no." 

Human creativity sees the universe as infinite and infinitely malleable.  You will find a great depiction of this human view of the universe in Star Trek: The Original Series ( ST:ToS ) and all of Captain Kirk's various creative solutions to problems.  He solved the problem even if it meant violating the Prime Directive and got away with it.

Humans don't accept limits readily. 
A vast majority may accept Microsoft's dropdown menu choices, shrug off the grayed out ones, and make a free will choice from the black ones.

But Hackers do not do that.  If the program doesn't behave the way they want it to, they rewrite the program -- and they do it with pure glee.

That personality trait now gravitating toward "hacking" has been active in human history, probably since before there were humans.

It is human creativity.  You can't keep humans in a box for long.  Someone will figure out that if you wet the cardboard, you can poke through to the wider world.  If no choices on the menu are acceptable, create some new choices and write your own menu.  That's what humans do -- and nothing spurs a man to do that faster than winning a woman's love.

Most humans can be convinced they are helpless and without any recourse than the ones on the menu populated by their manipulators.  What if, among your Aliens, most Aliens were like our Hackers and only a few would accept pre-populated menus as the only choices?

An Alien Interstellar Consortium could never get away with demanding a human/Alien colonized world choose between being human dominated or alien dominated.  They would invent other choices, or un-invent the very concept of domination.

Here's the principle to remember as you are plotting your novel.

The Grifter Character tells the Mark what the problem is, and then reveals the only solution.

The pattern is clear in the Gypsy Curse Scam.  The Grifter finds a rich Mark, arranges for accomplices to inflict some bad-luck incidents on the Mark, then explains to the Mark that this run of bad luck is due to the Mark's money being cursed.  But don't worry, I know a Gypsy who can cleanse that cash for you.  Perhaps a demonstration is orchestrated to show how luck changes after the tainted item is cleansed.

The Mark hands over the cash, or jewels, or whatever, and never sees it again -- never sees the Grifter or any of his assistants again, has no idea where to find them.

It is the same thing as the handsome suitor who finally gets the woman into bed -- has his fun for a while -- and one morning just leaves.

The Grifter's main tool in getting what he wants is the false Free Will Choice - the Hobson's Choice - either take this horse or no horse at all.

Both options are equally unacceptable -- be a human dominated planet or an alien dominated planet; go to bed with me or wind up an old maid.

Most humans readily believe the choices listed on the menu are the only choices there are.  They don't look in the back of the stable to see what other horses might be there.  They don't jailbreak their iPhone to see what it can do with third party programs. 

Can curiosity and independence be bred out of humans by an Alien genetics program run through an online Dating Service? 

Can humans stranded on an Alien world be bred for compliance or defiance at the behest of the Aliens?

The trick in keeping humans happy is to convince the humans they have a variety of free will choices.  Give them choices.  Just make sure all the items on the menu are equally favorable to your purposes, so it doesn't matter what the human chooses.

Grifters leverage this human trait.  What would your Aliens think of humans who manipulate other humans that way?

Old Science Fiction used to rely on the Aliens having heard our Radio or seen our Television to learn our languages.  Yes, Earth leaks signal, but somehow I doubt this would be possible unless the Aliens were very close to Earth (our signals are weak). 

So, what would your Aliens make of current Television News broadcasts -- or can they get Cable or Satellite?  Would they understand the trickery?  Would they admire successful tricksters?  Would they scheme to insert "fake news" items onto the internet and wait to see if they become TV News items?

How could a writer use Fake News to introduce Soul Mates to each other?  Kidnapped by a UFO?

Watch the real news for short lists of your options - either it is this way or it is that way - try to find another way.  If "they" tell you what options you may choose among, create another option or three and you will have your Science Fiction Romance blockbuster title.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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