Whether they take a real person’s identity or simply invent a new one, sympathetic protagonists often do it for either or a combination of the following reasons:
Survival – This takes the form of people forcing the main character to impersonate someone, OR ELSE. Or alternatively, powerful people want the main character dead. Thus, to survive, the powerful people must be made to believe his death while he takes on another identity. Notice that especially in the case of the latter, killing off the old identity goes hand-in-hand with the birth of the new one. But in both cases, the main character is in a desperate situation and the perpetuation of the faux identity is integral to his continued survival.
Cause – The cause can range from revenge, love, a combination of the two or any other reason (as long as it is in the service of something the main character believes to be more than, higher than or beyond himself). This usually involves the protagonist having to infiltrate a group of people considered to be the enemy. In this case, the main character is often given training and preparation well in advance to blend in with the hostile group in order for said group to accept him as one of their own.
What’s fascinating about these protagonists is that they have to continually lie to the majority of the people around them, even those that they consider friends. Sure, we can understand the necessity of the continued deception. But this usually takes a toll on sympathetic protagonists.
This is not to say that all these protagonists are excellent liars. As with any group, they vary in their proficiency. So (on a per-story basis) the success of their new identities can depend on their skills at deception or at the gullibility of the people around them.
In other words, some of the following protagonists are just that good at making people believe them. While others are actually bad liars but are able to continue in their charade because the people around them choose to ignore glaring anomalies in their stories.
Pawn by Aimee Carter
In a dystopia where a written test determines your rank and job in society, orphaned and dyslexic Kitty Doe’s lot in life seems destined for sewage treatment and the like. But in a twist of fate, Lila Hart (niece of the president and scion of the family that ruled the country for generations) was “killed in an accident” aka probably silenced for her vocal opposition to the current status quo
Lila’s popularity is a double edged sword. The President hopes that he can use it to undermine the opposition (aka the Rebellion that was further bolstered by Lila’s speeches in the first place). Thus, Kitty is given the chance to change her fate by impersonating Lila and using her popularity to stop the rebellion. A balancing act for Kitty Doe because she actually supports the rebellion.
Personally, I loved this book because I’m always game for a strong female character who has to pretend to be something she’s not. But at the same time remain true to her own convictions. Kitty works hard to pass as Lila. But despite threats to her own life, Kitty does not blindly follow orders. She thinks for herself and decides based on what she knows to be right.
People underestimate Kitty because of her seeming powerlessness. But it’s a joy to see her prove them wrong
Maledicte by Lane Robins
Miranda is left for dead after her best friend and love Janus is taken by the Earl of Last. Apparently, Janus is his bastard son. And with the king (the Earl’s brother) not having a child fit to succeed him, it seems the line of succession goes to the Earl and any progeny he would have. Too bad the only known progeny is Janus.
Miranda survives. Unfortunately, she does it by making a deal with Ani, the long-forgotten Goddess of Love and Vengeance.
In order to get Janus back and kill the Earl of Last, Miranda will have to pose as a nobleman named Maledicte. Yes, I did make a typo error. Miranda has to pose as a male. Something that isn’t much of a problem when she is host to a Goddess with a one-track-mind for vengeance
I love this book for the imagery. And the idea of someone messing up an already decadent court. And the whole cross-dressing angle of the story. There’s also this romance with a nice guy going on here that I love. So if any of these sound good to you, perhaps you might want to try this book out.
The False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen
Already an accomplished liar, the orphan Sage is one of the boys taken and coerced into impersonating Prince Jaron. With the death of the King, Queen and the Crown Prince, the long-lost Prince Jaron would be next-in-line for the throne. That is, if he actually is still alive.
In this time of uncertainty, an enterprising noble decides to create Jaron impersonators and choose one to convince an entire court to crown the boy King.
One of my favorite books. Sage is an excellent liar and probably would have been the top pick had he been less impertinent and strong willed. All I can say is that the story is intriguing and I never expected to like Sage so much. But here I am gushing about how you should give this book a try.
I’m just fascinated with the main character. He’s not the most athletic nor the smartest character in the book. But his quick-thinking and his conscious effort at making his opponents underestimate him are what usually saves him from permanent harm.
The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid
Nemesis has only one purpose for existence: to protect Sidonia. With the emperor ordering Sidonia to his capital (as a hostage in case her family does something to displease him), Sidonia’s mother decides to have Nemesis take Sidonia’s place.
Unlike the other examples on this article, Nemesis can initially be hard to relate to. For one she’s biologically engineered to love and protect the “Master.” In this case, Sidonia. So her sole reason for taking on another identity is to protect another person, someone she’s “programmed” into loving. But she becomes more and more relatable as the book progresses. Sidonia was her only friend prior to her stay at the capital. But Nemesis begins to make her own friends and care about more than just Sidonia.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the book. But I love it for being a unique take on a main character’s quest to ending a dystopia. Usually, characters in Nemesis’ position would ally with the rebellion and feed them information. But The Diabolic takes a different route. AND I LOVE IT.
Also, romance lovers might want to give it a try. I’d say the romance is central to “the different route” I mentioned earlier
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Darrow is a Red. Which means he’s forever going to have to mine the underground of planet Mars. With his wife executed for singing a seditious song, he decides he’s had enough of the Golds treating them like slaves. He thus joins the Sons of Ares (the Rebellion). The leader Ares assigns him a special mission: to enter the Gold’s military academy, posing as a Gold Student.
One of the most popular series out there. Darrow really had to endure a lot of pain to get into the academy. He had to know how Golds talk, act, eat, etc. He also had to endure a LOT of surgery to look like one.
I admire him because he became so good at his education that he eventually becomes one of the top ranking students from the get-go.
This book has it all: Action, Romance and classic themes that you want your kids to learn. For those who enjoy war games and military strategy, this book is for you as well.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
In this world, the silver-blooded “Silvers” have all the powers. That includes literal powers such as telekinesis, pyrokinesis, etc. Red-blooded humans are just considered ordinary people fit for a compulsory draft into the army and manual labor
Mare Barrow is a Red. But when she develops powers despite her Red status (and accidentally shows it in front of the whole Silver elite), the King and Queen decide to perpetuate a lie to keep their Silver subjects from panicking.
According to the Royals, Mare is actually Mareena, a long lost Silver noble who was adopted by a Red soldier and his family…..
Mare initially agrees to this role for survival and also to help her family (all her brothers are in the army and she wants them out). But she knows that Reds will continue to be treated as low-class citizens. And with one of her brothers killed in action before being freed from conscription, she decides to join the Scarlet Guard (the Rebellion) to free Reds from their bondage.
A lot of people would probably comment on its similarity to Red Rising. But I assure you that they are two different books written by different authors. Those who prefer romance and political/palace intrigue would probably be more at home with Red Queen
So why are these stories so popular?
I think there’s plenty of reasons. But I’ll just give you what I think.
1.) These stories resonate with real life.
Not a lot of people will simply just open up and tell everyone what they think and feel. For one thing, it makes us vulnerable to show our true selves to people we don’t even know or to people we aren’t even sure have our best interests at heart.
For another thing, we know that there are things (let’s call it our dark side) we think and feel that are not considered acceptable and/or excusable by the society we live in. We know that to show this dark side would alienate a lot of the people we work, study and/or live with
Hence we wear a “mask” in our everyday interactions. Granted, the “mask” isn’t as elaborate as that of the protagonists above. But we wear it just the same. We keep a part of ourselves hidden because we do think it to be a disadvantage to us. In its place, we put on a mask that we consider to be more acceptable to those around us
2.) There’s a sense of temporary escape from reality
Notice that most of the stories I’ve made examples of involve the main character having to pose as a person from a totally different background. There’s this element of: “what-if I were born rich or poor or talented or whatever else?”
These type of stories tackle a person exploring a way of life completely different from the one he grew up in. And who hasn’t thought of being someone else at one point in his life?
So all-in-all, these stories are popular because they explore our need to show others what we think to be an acceptable version of ourselves and at the same time hide what we think would endanger our relationship to others. At the same time, these stories explore our wish to live a different way of life. Something we would consider new and exciting simply because it is very different from the life we grew up in