Operation Mincemeat and Character Creation

Operation Mincemeat was a programme on the BBC about a top secret operation during the Second World War, the objective of which was to fool the Germans that the Allied invasion in 1943 would be into Greece, rather than the real target of Sicily.

‘The corkscrew thinkers’ of counter intelligence came up with the plan of planting a dead body in the ocean just south of Spain with fake and misleading documents on him, which would hopefully land up in the hands of the Germans.

The programme detailed the difficulties of finding the right kind of dead body that might fool a pathologist into believing it had been killed by ditching in the sea from a crashing aircraft, of clothing it in a time of extreme clothing rationing, and fitting it out with all the bits and pieces that would lead the people who found it that it was really what it purported to be.

Some members of the team involved, now very elderly ladies, were interviewed for the programme, and they described the competition to have something of theirs on the body.  One supplied a photograph to be ‘Pam’, the fictional girlfriend of William Martin, the fictional officer, another addressed the envelope for the fake despatches, and her pride that  her handwriting was in the briefcase attached to the body was still evident.

The photograph and love letters from Pam, written by the strait-laced head secretary, were part of what they described as ‘wallet litter’.  In gathering this ‘litter’, including cinema ticket stubs and identity cards, the chief planner of the scheme apparently became so obsessed, he began to almost believe that he was William Martin, even to the extent of making advances on the girl who had supplied the photo of Pam, and calling her by the made up name.

The historical analysis suggests that it was the care and conviction with which the team had created the fiction that determined the success of the operation.  They had created an entirely credible fictional character out of bits and pieces.

There is a lesson in that for all of us trying to create believable characters for our fiction.  Maybe it’s a cliché to suggest that we need to know what the character has in his pockets; but if it is, it’s because it’s true.

A young soldier would have a girlfriend, and he would keep her photo and letters close; on leave he’d take her to the pictures.  These days he’d have other things as well; his iPod, his sunglasses, chewing gum, whatever. Tim O’Brien’s short story ‘The things they carried’ almost provides the definitive example of how much depth and complexity ‘stuff’ can reveal.

But the art is in finding the key detail that reveals the internal life of a character to both creator and reader.  It is similar to the way some actors say they can only see their character once they know what kind of shoes they wear, or what kind of nose they have.

As the creator of fiction the writer needs to know these and many other details.  You may not necessarily use them all, and believe me I know the pain of discarding valuable words when the  details so slavishly worked out prove not to be needed; but it’s all part of the building process.  And why not start with the shoes?

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  1. margaret nickels

     /  May 25, 2011

    I found it rather compelling .The previous one was also good : Operation Crossbow.The point was made though that the Nazis chose to believe in the ruse in Operation Mincemeat……. at some point that is true for all ‘stories ‘ I think however they may be presented .

    • The trick is to provide a ‘smooth’ and believable story with no snaggle that causes the ‘reader’ to pause to question inconsistencies, isn’t it?


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