People rarely show their true emotions.
Sure, there are those that always wear their heart on their proverbial sleeve, but most everyone has a few emotions that they never show. We’re naturally inclined to hold something back. It’s in our nature to be less trusting than maybe we ought.
How is this relevant to writing? Well, characters should hold something back, too.
I’m not saying that characters should be emotionless. Not in any way, shape, or form am I alluding to that. Yes, some characters are meant to be emotionless (like Spock), but all good characters that aren’t Vulcans have some form of emotion. Without emotions, your characters will be boring and your reader will stop reading your thing.
However, characters can still hide what they truly feel. You can give your readers a hint of something more, while holding it back.
You let your character put on a mask.
Creating the Mask
Before you can show your characters holding something back, they need to present something.
After all, to put on a mask, you need to find a mask first.
So. What is your character’s mask going to be? Quite simply, this mask needs to be a realistic emotion and personality for the scene/situation. If your character puts on a constant mask of ludicrous amusement, then we’re probably going to doubt their validity. You want your reader to believe at least a little in the mask at some point.
The mask has to make sense to the character. If your character wouldn’t force that emotion out, they can’t wear it as a mask. Often times, a character mask is an easily accepted personality/emotion for that particular character. When the other characters can say “okay” and move on, so will the reader.
Masks should start simple. If you try to present a complex mask for a character right from the start, your reader will have difficulty with reversing their opinion and mental image when the mask comes off. As you continue, let it expand slowly. Keep in mind, however, that each layer you add to the mask will make it harder to remove. Perhaps consider letting a layer fall for every two layers you add. Then, once the whole thing comes off, you’ve got a manageable mess to deal with.
This mask you create should pretend to encompass the whole of the character. It should pose in front of their real character.
For instance, my character Deyu (from Agram Awakens) is a slave girl who rarely talks, who is meek and quiet and obedient. To all the other slaves, she’s little more than a mindless worker, and to her master she’s nothing but a tool.
This is the mask she presents to the other characters (I call this a story mask). The reader, however, is inside her head, and so realizes that there is more to her than mindless, repetitive work.
Inside, Deyu hates her masters (even as she fears them). She holds tightly to her emotions and refuses to let those around her see them: they are her only possessions. The reader gets to see this mask of bitterness and hate and fear and desperation.
But it’s still a mask (the reader mask, as I call it).
Deep down inside (where not even the reader gets to see until three-quarters of the way through the book), Deyu wants to be happy, to laugh and to talk and to dance. She wants to make friends and help people and love them.
Yet she can’t. She knows that the second she lets this true version of herself out, those around her will squash it.
So Deyu puts on a mask. Two of them, in fact.
Every character has a different mask. It will come from their circumstances and from their personality and from their choices.
Foreshadowing the Layers
The point of a mask is to hide something. And the point of story is to reveal the truth. Therefore, when you have a character mask in a story, you need to show that mask for what it is: a masquerade.
You can’t, however, just go around pulling masks off willy-nilly. Your reader will find this jerking and unsatisfying. They’ve come to accept these masks as truth, so when you tell them that these masks are lies, they will stop trusting you. You lied to them about the mask, so what else have you lied about?
The easiest way to show a mask as such is to foreshadow its falsehood. These can be simple single-sentence hints at something deeper, something opposite the mask. When the character acts in line with their mask, show them grimacing inside, show them debating the choice, show them wishing to be real.
Do this slowly. Let it build a sentence per chapter at a time, until you can unveil the mask as it is. The more you foreshadow, the more your reader will accept the mask as a mask. When a character’s mask is slowly revealed as a mask, it doesn’t feel like a lie.
The thing about masks… they don’t often stay on well. A strap breaks, the plaster/plastic/paper wears thin, and it breaks.
When your character’s mask breaks, they have to reveal their true self.
It creates a moment of deep and real character growth that will make your reader fall in love with the character they’ve already grown to know and care for.
There’s only one problem: character masks are more durable than your average masquerade-party mask. They’re made of pure personality and emotion, both of which have high endurance and way more stubbornness than they deserve.
Your character needs to feel pressure before they give up their mask. It’s not a real mask if they’re willing to shed it at the smallest provocation.
Let them struggle against it, let them cling to their mask.
When it comes to Deyu, she clings to her mask for most of the book. She shows it to everyone, to the people around her and to the reader. Nothing can tear that mask from her, even the moments of freedom she receives.
She’s had her mask for so long, it’s almost become real to her. And when it finally breaks, Deyu continues to hold onto the fragments. Sometimes she retreats back to those slivers, holding them up despite their inability to conceal her. She says “no, this is me” as she presents the broken vestiges of her fear-mask.
Turns out, that mask was what protected her innocent soul from the world.
The mask has to be broken, not just taken off.
Character masks can create a reality in characters that can never be found by coming up with lists of their favorite colors and desserts.
They’re real, they’re raw.
They bring truth to your story.
After all, the truth is the point, isn’t it?