Saturday, February 6, 2016

Backstory, Part 3 – Things We Hide

Before we begin, I wanted to apologize for the late posting: I was without internet access yesterday (hurrah for traveling, right?) and was unable to post. Anyway…

What do broken characters do with their pain?
Many of them conceal it, bury it deep inside themselves and brood over it. Others wear it on their proverbial sleeve.

Why does a character choose one over the other?
To broaden the question to something beyond pain, why do character reveal what they reveal, and hide what they hide?

Secrets are an intriguing subject, are they not? People love a good secret; they love spilling a good secret even more.
In writing, secrets can create tension and conflict and danger, sympathy as well as hatred. But which secrets are the good kind and which secrets make your reader bored?

There is no clear-cut answer, but there are a few that I’ve noticed:

Fears are Friends

What does your character fear? Why?
Fear is one of the greatest empathy-stirring tools you have. Your readers fear things (whether or not they admit it), and they empathize with a character who fears the same or similar things.
However, fear is often overdone. Because it is so powerful, it is very commonly used. Some common fears include heights, the dark, small spaces, spiders, snakes, and so forth. It’s not bad to use one of these, but you need a good reason why.
Even the most irrational fear has motivation behind it. A person fears something for a particular reason. For instance: a child might fear insects because a spider hung out with them in the bathtub one time, or crawled up their leg while outside.
A man might fear heights because he once fell out of a barn loft when he was younger.
Some fears are biologically instilled (such as heights), but the best kind of fear has a reason behind it.

When you give your characters fear, don’t just run down a list of phobias and assign them willy-nilly; dig deep into your character and find out why they fear what they fear.
Lastly, give them two kinds of fears: one they show, and one they don’t. Even characters who mask their emotions show a little emotion at times. The fear they show should crack their mask.
The fear they hide, however, should be the stronger fear. It should paralyze them internally, even if they show nothing on the outside. Their conscious runs around screaming (like Fear from Inside Out) while their exterior keeps moving, keeps going through the motions.

Painful Memories

We’ve all got memories that make us cringe, make us want to cry, or worse in some cases.
Characters should have those, too. How many? Well, like I said last week, that depends on several things.
But they should have at least one. These memories shouldn’t be random; plant these memories such that they impact the story somehow. A situation makes your character remember, the plot is borne on the shoulders of said memory, or a specific character/setting brings forth that pain.

Memories are something your character – as far as my opinion stretches – shouldn’t share, for two reasons. First, memories your character shares with other characters usually become information dumps. That is, your character shares a memory because other characters (and the reader) need “important” information from the memory.
This is a cop-out, as it were. It’s a lazy way to implant information about something – anything – into your story through memories. Better to have a story about in the newspaper.
Secondly, memories are precious. Especially painful ones. We horde them, regardless of their pain, because we don’t want to forget. The memories help us cling to what we are and what we want to be. Characters shouldn’t fling their memories this way and that. If they have to share them, it should be with a friend they’ve trusted for years, a sibling, a parent, or a spousal figure.

Secrets and Lies

I combine these two because they can be similar in many ways.
Everyone has secrets. Something they wouldn’t tell anyone else in the world. Whether out of fear or shyness or some other reason, people keep secrets.

And all of us lie. Lies are evil secrets. They’re the kind of secret we tell to hurt others or protect ourselves from punishment and guilt.

How do we incorporate both of these into characters? Well, first, we have to admit that everyone has both of these things. Even your perfect little role model of a heroine. Even if the theme of your book is about transparency or honesty. Perhaps their lie is their flaw. Your hero upholds honesty over all else and yet he holds in his hands a secret little fib that becomes his undoing.
Next, secrets and lies have to make sense. They can’t just be assigned like you’ve got a checklist you’ve got to go through. This character gets that secret and this lie, another character gets a different secret and lie.
Nope, nope, nope. 

Lies come from our tendency toward self-preservation and our natural aggression. Therefore, examine what your character has to hide and falsify to keep their social standing, to keep their life, to keep their livelihood, and so forth. Examine their instinctive aggression; would they tell a lie to hurt someone? Who and why and what?
Questions are your friend.

Secrets, however, are less “moral” and more blurry. They are the gray area of your colorful novel. They’re about what your character has to hide. A secret can be harmless: along the lines of a crush from 5th grade, or they can be dangerous: along the lines of “I can summon an evil being from the underworld when I get distracted by eating bacon”.

Secrets can be embarrassing: disfigurement, humiliation, and so forth, or they can simply be personal: a character not mentioning that they were married once because their spouse died in a tragic accident.

Many Characters, Many Fears

I’d claimed that I’m not trying to tie every single post back to this, but I guess it just happens because I just like the topic.

No two characters should be alike. Even twins are a little different. Identical characters is a sign of a weak story and poor writing.
Even if your story is weak and you’re not that good at writing, don’t show it off by using characters that look and feel and sound the same.

Be diverse.
There, I said it.
When you give your characters fears, when you give them memories and secrets and lies and bits of darkness, don’t settle.
Let each character be unique in their own way, let them be different.
It’s okay, I promise.

What do you think? What sorts of secrets do your characters hide? Leave a comment and share!

Related posts:

Last Blip:

Featured Post: 

No comments:

Post a Comment