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I've been watching the first season of White Collar, and it's making me think about how to show that a character is untrustworthy.


1. Have the character betray a trust.

Pros: Straightforward.

Cons: Especially if the trust is important, and even if there are mitigating circumstances, this will make the character less sympathetic.

2. Have someone who knows the character worry about them being untrustworthy.

Pros: Character development for the someone who knows the character, showing exactly how they worry, what aspects they worry most about, etc.

Cons: Actions speak louder than words. The character who worries could come to be seen as worrying unnecessarily if this is the only way that untrustworthiness is shown.

3. Have someone who knows the character be willing to assume (with or without evidence) that they have betrayed a trust, and act based on this assumption.

Pros: This is a stronger version of #2, so it should have more impact.

Cons: However, if the character didn't actually do it, then the end result is that the untrustworthy character is vindicated, and then doing this is reinforcing the trustworthiness of the character, more than the untrustworthiness.

4. Have them talk about betraying a trust, talking about being tempted by the benefits of betraying the trust...

Pros: Straight from the horse's mouth.

Cons: Still just words, and subject to many interpretations, especially depending on who they are talking to, what the circumstances are, etc.

5. Have them show that they are capable of betraying a trust, that they have the skills to pull it off and/or the desire and motivation.

Pros: It's like setting up a murder mystery. Everyone needs both a motive and opportunity. The more immediate the scene is when you show the motive and the opportunity, the more impact is has.

Cons: In a good murder mystery, everyone has the motive and the opportunity. If it's not a murder mystery, maybe not everyone, but all the same this probably won't make the character uniquely untrustworthy. It might not even come across as untrustworthy at all, if they have the skills but the motivation is weak, or the other way around.

6. Have them almost betray a trust. Go right up to the brink and then be pulled back by some circumstance.

Pros: If they really look like they're going to do it, then you have all the untrustworthiness without as much loss of sympathy and consequences of actually doing it. Or, if they almost do it and then change their mind or manage to pull themself back somehow, then they can immediately earn back a lot of what they've lost for untrustworthiness.

Cons: You can't repeat this sort of thing too much, or it loses all impact.

7. Have them betray a trust in a way that is sympathetic, that is in some way not important, or that is being true to something more important. (I.e. betraying something abstract for something concrete can often be sympathetic. Betraying something concrete for something abstract isn't really sympathetic, I don't think, but it can make the character seem more like someone to respect, if it's a matter of principle and this principle stays consistent as something they value.)

Pros: This is actually the most character-revealing option, if you can think of something good for this. Also, it is being untrustworthy, which a lot of the other options aren't.

Cons: This can be a very fine line, and can make a different impression than the one you really wanted to make if you're not careful. And everyone will read it differently.

8. Have the "untrustworthy" character always testing boundaries, or doing other things that seem like they'd likely be linked to untrustworthiness.

Pros: More subtly approaching the same general area (for example, testing boundaries can come across as unpredictable and in it for themself and their own amusement).

Cons: Testing boundaries isn't exactly the same as untrustworthy. This is more of a supplemental technique than something that can create an impression by itself.


Truthfully, I don't think that Neal (the con man character) comes across as in the least bit actually untrustworthy in White Collar (I've only seen the first 2/3 of Season 1), which sort of bothers me sometimes (and is why I'm thinking about options for what could have been done and what was done), and sometimes it's what I like about it. It's a very safe show. No one is going to get hurt.

And having set things up this way, if it ever becomes unsafe, I might just rebel, unless they do it very carefully.

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