Are Mistaken Identities Still Viable Plots?


In today’s world, I am still surprised that people commit crimes. I know that not everyone gets away with it, but realistically speaking, there are so many ways that you can get caught: DNA, finger prints, mobile phone video, surveillance cameras, activity trackers, I personally couldn’t justify the risk of doing something illegal. Luckily though, I’m just a writer and not someone trying to commit petty theft. 🙂

Similarly, it’s next to impossible to hide your identity. With all of the ways to get caught listed above, it can also be hard to hide your identity. Sure, catfishing is a thing. But, eventually (usually) you get called out and the jig is up. This is a roundabout way of coming to my question for today. Are mistaken identities still a viable plot point given the way that technology has wiped out anonymity (we don’t have to get in to how it conversely increases anonymity. That’s a conversation for another day)?

I’m going to cheat on this one and split my answer. Yes and no. Mistaken identities still happen. People still go to jail for crimes they didn’t commit for various reasons and it’s still easy enough to mislead someone about your intentions. Instead of the dark woods, we’re afraid of the dark web and we use web cams to watch our front porches so people can’t walk off with our packages. And yet, stuff like this still happens. While some people leave everything out on the net, others are able to hide everything and surprise us with their horrific actions.

So, what does the yes portion of my answer mean for our characters? For one, there are a lot of villains living in solitude out there who are capable of hiding their true selves from the outside world. If you’re writing a thriller, then this is a logical character trait. There’s still something so chilling about a person who appears to be one thing but then reveals him or herself to be something completely different. It is also very reminiscent of the idea that something beautiful can be dangerous or villainous. As I’ve mentioned before, in previous eras of literature, the villain was always ugly. It wasn’t until more recently that the villain was conceived as someone who is beautiful or attractive (even normal-looking works here too), and thus, all the more sinister.

Another way to look at this concept, if you’re not talking about villains, is the first impression. We’ve gotten into a phase in literature where people are obsessed with unlikable heroes and heroines. Grumpy old men, for example, are having a heyday (Think A Man Called Ove) in literature right now, as is the unlikable hero or heroine in general.

Now for the “no” part of my answer. Mistaken identity plots can’t work like the way they did in the mid-1900s or earlier simply because of the more sophisticated world we live in. In a world before the internet, mobile phones and DNA evidence, there was a lot less to get in your way. You could more easily change your hair or some other feature and stay hidden because photographic images, communication and x-rays were not nearly so sophisticated. It’s a lot more believable as a plot point that someone could be mistaken for someone else in a story that takes place in a different era or a world where such technological advances do not yet exist.

Personally, when I’m reading a novel and the crux of the thing ends up hinging on a mistaken identity, I’m a little disappointed and I often wish that the author had been able to come up with something a little more interesting. I feel like I’ve done all the work of reading the story and trying to solve the mystery and then the writer cops out and says oh whoops this person is actually someone else!

Despite my protestations to this particular device, there are ways to revitalize the concept. Instead, if a writer wants to approach a mistaken identity story in a modern setting, they’re going to have to get REALLY creative. Can you fool DNA? Sure if there’s a secret twin or triplet involved. Can you get rid of fingerprints? I imagine so, but that sounds really painful. Maybe the villain received serious plastic surgery so they could look like someone else (talk about premeditated, right?).

Mistaken identity plots have been in existence since the early days of storytelling. We’ve all been in a situation in which we see someone and think they’re someone else. It’s easy to trick the eye for a few seconds, though much harder to fool science on a broader level or more lasting timeframe. Personally, if I were to write a story and a mistaken identity story line becomes part of the larger picture, I’d really have to sit down and think about whether or not the story really warranted this and if there was a way to deliver surprise without relying on this particular device.

Are there plot devices that simply drive you batty? What are they? If you were to write a mistaken identity plot, how would you approach it to give it new life? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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