You turn the page in a new notebook or open a Word document with dreams of the story to come. If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking of these characters for months, maybe years, and you think you know them inside out. Nothing to surprise you here.
You start writing — and then the miracle happens.
Your characters are no longer names on a page. They are living, breathing people, with complex personalities and problems and attitudes.
Not to mention the occasional action or statement that changes the direction of the story.
“Wait— what do you mean you’ve always hated John? I created you to be his best friend! How can you turn on him like this?”
Your characters have come to life.
And, like us, they have secrets to guard. Will do anything to keep these secrets hidden.
It’s your mission to break down their defenses and find out who your characters are beyond the page.
Remember— every character has goals. What separates the heroes from the villains is what they’ll do to reach those goals.
Sometimes, the line between good and evil is blurred. The hero may stoop to evil or the villain may have a moment of kindness. The story continually twists and spirals, controlled by hidden motivations and secrets. Everyone is complex to some extent, and our characters should be no different.
I’ve found that when I put my characters into situations that force them to face their fears, their real personality comes out and they reveal more than I ever expected. Sometimes the secrets are darker than I like, but I understand so much more about them after the revelation. Understand why they react the way they do.
Ask hard questions. Probe deep.
And it will take your story into unexpected levels.
What would your hero do when faced with an impossible choice? Trap him between two options: save the woman he loves or save his village.
See which one he chooses.
No matter which choices he makes, the consequences will stay with him forever. Will he know he made the right choice or will he always wonder what could’ve happened had he chosen the other option?
The results of our choices —good or bad— stay with us forever.
It should be the same for our characters.
Sometimes, the only way to find out what’s in a character’s heart is to totally break them. I know— it hurts. One of the hardest things about writing is watching my characters succumb to fear and pain, and sometimes I want to erase everything and make their life easy.
But, like us, they must overcome.
Without secrets, without conflict, you would have far less of a story.
Do you have any tips about building character backgrounds and exposing their secrets? Please share!
Coming Next Week: Interview with Author Barbara Brutt