Thursday, April 11, 2019

Crafting The Con Man

In the month of April Fools' Day, it seems like a good time to look at one of the characters we love to hate: The Con Man. He can appear in any genre. He can be the hero or the villain.

The Con Man plot is most often used in Mystery or Thriller, but can be used in other genres. Cons can be conducted in person or via mail or the internet these days. There are successful swindlers and not so successful ones. Whether Dick is good at the game or laughable depends on your plot. Cons have been gaining people’s confidence since the population grew large enough to support snake oil salesmen. Let’s take an in-depth look at what makes a con tick.

Dick the scammer is selfish and greedy. He isn’t lazy. Conning people takes a lot of energy and he is constantly in danger of getting caught. Traveling light and avoiding relationships is a good idea.

Dick can be a charming predator. The most deadly scammer is a true sociopath. If you want to humanize him, give Dick a smidgen of conscience. Supply him that one person he can’t bring himself to harm, even to save himself.

Dick appears confident and successful, even if he is inwardly a seething mass of self-hatred. He is a consummate actor and good at reading people. He uses the method that works best in the situation: sympathy, intimidation, appealing to core needs, or greed. He is quick with an alibi and full of excuses. He can patter his way out of a heated argument.

Dick comes across as genuine. He cares for you, man. He asks lots of personal questions to appear friendly, but he’s really mining data to use against you. He wants to know what you want, what you fear, what leverage he can use. He tests the mark to see how compliant they are and how open to suggestion. As soon as he identifies a weakness, he zeroes in. If the mark refuses to answer questions or comply with requests, Dick makes a quick getaway. A mark who asks too many questions, or suggests talking things over with his attorney, is dangerous.

Dick looks for marks who answer rather than ask questions. Instead of reading paperwork, they ask him to explain it. They don’t question why the deal is being offered; they focus on what the deal will do for them. They might ask for verification, but never check it.

Dick shows no fear or hesitation. He convinces marks they can do something together they couldn’t do alone. He whips them into an emotional frenzy befitting an NFL coach. Even intelligent marks, if they rely on emotion to make decisions, can be caught in Dick’s net. Interestingly, men are easier targets. Dick manipulates their egos, insecurities, and inferiority complexes. However, Dick the con man could just as easily be Jane the con woman. Seduction makes the mark easier to con.

If the opportunity sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Dicks offers something for next to nothing. The individual contribution is small, but multiplied by a thousand or a million marks, Dick can head off to Fiji in no time. He may offer them something that proves worthless (a product, a service, a bond) long after Dick has boarded his plane.

The marks can be people with limited means, but that isn’t as profitable as those with lots of money in the bank. When dealing with the big boys, Dick has to set up an elaborate facade or fake business which might crumble on close scrutiny. He has to walk, talk, and dress the part. Dick might bring in legitimate people to support his scam (knowingly or unknowingly). The more powerful, high profile, or famous the individual, the better.

Dick’s primary weapon is emotion, so when he meets a steely logical type, it is in his best interest to move on. Characters that run on pure logic ask too many questions and probe too deeply. They demand proof first. If Dick is your antagonist, one of the low-emotional, logical types should be your protagonist.

If Jane is your logical protagonist, she may be the lone voice of reason, the only one asking questions. She suffers as those around her fall prey to Dick’s machinations. Jane won’t stop asking questions or digging deeper to expose Dick for the criminal he is and to bring him to justice.

On a literary level, Jane may be the only one shrewd enough to expose the corrupt society member. She may be the only family member immune to his charm or strong-willed enough to hold him accountable for his actions. There is little she can do for Dick’s string of victims. They may even resent her for revealing the scam. They will feel the fool or mourn the loss of the gain they hoped to win.

Not all cons are evil, though the list of evil fictional cons is long. Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders, the sometime prostitute/sometime wife and William Thackary’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair conned to survive in a male dominant world. Con men can be lovable and work on the side of good, like the Patrick Jane character in the television show The Mentalist. Mentalists and psychics are examples of highly skilled cons.

The real life Frank Abagnale Jr. switched to helping the FBI after thwarting them.

In children's fiction, Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf in the Series of Unfortunate Events is an inept con man.

Whether your con is protagonist, antagonist, or complication, the key is to make them memorable rather than stereotypical.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I have a great conman in my first two books. Problem is that my hero is too close to him, trusted him with his life in the past, and owes him a huge debt of honor, that he misses the subtle clue about what's going on. It isn't until much letter he realizes his friend was playing both sides against the middle.

  2. There are so many Dicks out there these days that we have to be on constant high alert. :D That makes the con man (or woman) the perfect villain for mysteries because we can identify with the victim and desperately want the bad guy caught.

  3. This is a very comprehensive description of a con man, and it opens so many possibilities of twists and turns in plot and characterization. Great post, Diana. It's a keeper. :-)

    1. They make popular heroes when they work on the side of good. And great villains of course because they can manage to get so many people who owe them or are afraid of exposure.

  4. Great descriptions of a con man. There have been quite a few like Abagnale that were so good at there jobs that they were hired by companies or the government. I can name a couple that hoodwinked a whole country. But I won't.

  5. I am a born skeptic so I am a little surprised by some of them. :)

  6. I'm reading a wonderful tween series at the moment (The Map to Everywhere) where one of the young protagonists is under a curse that makes people forget him after a few minutes. Since no one would remember giving him a job, let alone remember to pay him for doing it, he survives by conning and stealing. He makes for a fascinating character since he's ultimately good at heart.

    1. That does sound like an interesting character. Maybe it's easier to be a con man, or woman, when magic is involved. LOL


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