Characters Who Are Not What They Seem

Impersonations. Dual identities. Switched identities. Hidden Identities. Etc. Literature has many of them, and discussion of all that will be unmasked…now.

Characters not being what they seem can help make books interesting, compelling, and dramatic. Those elements of mystery (for lack of a better word) can be puzzles to solve for other characters and for us, the readers.

This topic came to mind when I recently read Isak Dinesen’s 79-page short story “The Deluge at Norderney.” Various things happen in that striking tale of four people stranded in a house as floodwaters rise, but the biggest shocker is when we learn one of the characters isn’t who he claimed to be.

A number of famous novels also contain identity twists. For instance, we as readers know that the titular character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is Edmond Dantes, but the people the Count is wreaking revenge on (for his false imprisonment) do not know until the last minute that this charismatic rich guy is the man they framed.

Mark Twain wrote two memorable “swap” novels: The Prince and the Pauper (a rich kid and a poor kid change places) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (a white baby born to the master of the house and a white-looking but partly black baby born into slavery are switched in infancy and grow into each other’s station in life — making for a strong commentary on race, class, upbringing, and genetics).

Also from the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the idea of dual personalities, good and evil. And Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre includes the memorable scene of Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy to try to learn what Jane’s feelings might be for him. Later, Jane adopts the name Jane Elliott when she flees and doesn’t want to be traced — similar to when Helen Huntingdon becomes Helen Graham when escaping an abusive marriage in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Moving to the 20th century, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has Valancy Stirling’s love interest hide his identity as both a rich heir and famous author of books written under a different name.

Then, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, there’s the servant to Lord Voldemort known as Peter Pettigrew, Wormtail, and (in rat disguise) Scabbers. An identity trifecta!

Of course, there are various comic-book superheroes (Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, etc.) with both human identities and costumed identities. Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay includes a cartoon character’s creation/exploitation that kind of mirrors the story of Superman’s creation/exploitation.

What are some of your favorite fictional works (those I mentioned or didn’t mention) containing characters who fit the topic of this blog post?

And here are two songs: Renaissance’s “Jekyll and Hyde” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise.”

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.


In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, about everything from Trumpcare to kneeling during the national anthem, is here.