Five Tips for Writing Characters Who Will Intrigue Your Reader
Writing Characters Tips 1 & 2: Secrets and Lies
One of the best ways to build conflict and suspense in your character and intrigue your reader is to give your character a secret. Better yet, have her lie to hide it and to protect herself. Don’t divulge the secret right away in your story, but keep it hidden until the perfect time to startle your reader. Secrets and lies will give the reader a beneath-the-surface reading experience and adds suspense and tension to your story.
As you write and get to know your character, look for a secret from your character’s backstory, something that haunts her, something from her past that she doesn’t want others to know. The part of her that she hides from other characters. This secret and its consequences will drive your character emotionally. To keep the secret from feeling too contrived in your story, don’t reveal it right away. She may or may not be aware the secret plays a part in her actions and reactions. This secret may or may not be stated. The reader may or may not know this character secret in stated words, but it will always be there, driving your character’s motivations. Then, choose the perfect place in the story to reveal the secret and keep specifics hidden until then. Your reader will have a hint that there is something beneath the surface that works to make your character real. (Need some ideas to get your creativity going? See Creative Writing Prompts: Secrets and Lies for Your Characters.) Giving your character a secret is the perfect way to build subtext into your character’s actions.
A wonderful example of characters chock full of secrets and lies (and the masterful writing behind keeping the secrets and revealing them at just the right time) is Gillian Flynn’s hit mystery, Gone Girl. Both main characters have secrets and tell lies to each other, to other characters in the story, and finally to themselves. Another excellent example of this technique is Justin Cronin’s The Passage. There is every type of secret in the story—known, unknown, emotional secrets a character struggles with, characters in denial, characters keeping other’s secrets, characters using secrets like a weapon. Like Gone Girl, the secrets hinted at from the start—and from quite a few of the characters—hook the reader immediately and don’t let go!
Writing Characters Tip 3: Specific Fear
This is what your character wants to avoid at all costs. Make sure it is specific. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is terrified of losing another loved one (before the story her father has died, leaving her family in dire straits) and the story is launched when she steps up to protect her little sister, Prem. A very specific fear and a story challenge thrown up against that fear—a wonderful way to generate conflict.
Writing Characters Tip 4: Underlying Fear
Now figure out what your character is truly afraid of—the true fear that is beneath the specific fear. For an example, if the character’s specific fear is she doesn’t want to return home, perhaps her fear is that she will be a proven failure and have run out of options. Or if she returns home, she will be lost in the pain of her past. (Is there a secret connected to all of this? Even better!) Take the specific and expand it to her true, internal fear. Make it bigger and more important to her emotional makeup. What she needs to resolve in order to be happy. The underlying fear will identify her character arc, and is a great conflict generator as well as the specific fear. (For more on character fear, see Look Inside Your Character to Drive Your Plot.)
Writing Characters Tip 5: Mask
Of course, your character has protection built against her fears. This is the mask she shows to the world to cover her fear, secret, or both! The mask is how the world sees your character. It’s the face she shows to the world so no one will be able to unearth her true fear. Yet another great conflict generator. (For more in-depth discussion on your character’s façade or mask, see The First Layer of Character.)
Give your character secrets, lies, fears—both specific and underlying—and then a mask to hide behind, and you will have a story full of conflict, a character who has a chance to learn and grow, and characters with lots of motivation and character subtext. Talk about compelling!
Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com