Greetings Storytellers! We’re off to Part 4 of Crafting Rich Characters. In Part 1, we explored a character’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and quirks. In Part 2, we covered Attributes and Traits, Skills and Abilities, and Occupations and Interests. And in Part 3, we looked at the Formative Backstory, Core Values, and The Lie.
In this post, we’re going to explore some of my favorite parts of character building: Secrets, The Big Fear, and The Mask. We’ll look at the juicy parts of the characters that create tension, obstacles, and perhaps some mystery.
Now things get a little interesting. Where The Lie (Part 3) covered information the character doesn’t know, now we’re talking about things the character knows and doesn’t want anyone else to find out.
Secrets are secrets for a reason; they involve risk. Some secrets are small – the “homemade” pie in the oven is store-bought (one of my secrets!). Some are big, where discovery would threaten the character on a core level.
It follows that secrets impact a character’s attitudes and behaviors. Secrets affect choices. They add interest to the story because they can create tension or mystery in interpersonal dynamics as well as the plot.
Secrets are best when contextual and relevant to the plot. My store-bought-pie secret is more of a quirk unless I make a living selling homemade pies! That your character shops at thrift stores isn’t a problem unless the character doesn’t want her new friends to know she’s struggling financially.
Big secrets = Big stakes = Big tension in your story.
Some examples of secrets:
The character killed someone (accidentally or otherwise), embezzled from his employer, lost her wedding ring, has an addiction or an affair, lied about where he spent the weekend, has a banned magical talent, stole from his best friend, hid evidence, etc.
Secrets don’t have to be related to a particular action or event either. They may arise from childhood experiences in the backstory or from core values. Characters might hide what they perceive as flaws: poor self-esteem, depression, abuse (as perpetrator or victim), failure to achieve success, lack of a skill, shyness.
What is the character’s secret that no one else knows? Pick one, even if all it does is add a layer to the character’s personality (like my fake homemade pies).
The Big Fear
The Big Fear is related to secrets, but unlike my pie-fib, this is the one that terrifies – betrayal, loss of control, inability to protect loved ones, failure, death, loneliness, abandonment, poverty, aging, disgrace. It’s the fear that could bring one’s life crashing down.
It may reside in the conscious mind and be part of the character’s physical reality, such as being caught for a crime and losing everything she holds dear. Or it might drift in the subconscious mind, such as a fear of abandonment (because a parent disappeared when the character was a child). Big Fears are often rooted in early experiences, in which case the formative backstory comes into play.
Fear may drive the character’s goal – he must find out who really murdered his best friend before he takes the fall for the crime. Or it can be an obstacle she must overcome – she has to deal with a painful betrayal of love in order to love again.
This is another one where the higher the stakes, the bigger the tension.
Here are some questions for exploring a character’s Big Fear:
- What fear is caused by the overall plot problem?
- What past traumas might affect current behavior?
- What are they irrationally afraid of?
- What are they secretly afraid of?
- What fears draw on internal conflicts?
Ah, the mask. A character’s mask is directly related to his Big Fear. The mask describes how a character compensates or hides his fear from the world. For example, a character fearful of betrayal may act overly independent or refuse to get close to others. A character with a fear of failure may be a workaholic, or he may never take risks at all.
Masks are often deeply rooted. Rarely will a workaholic consider that he might have a fear of failure, or acknowledge a belief that he’s unlovable unless he provides an income. A child’s experience of parental divorce may lead to an adult fear of abandonment and a mask that includes controlling or fixing everyone around them.
Often the mask comes undone or must be discarded when circumstances force characters to face and perhaps overcome their fears. A character must abandon his false bravado when forced to be truly brave. He must get over his fear of failure and mask of hyper-competence to solve a problem with others. She must let her children grow up and make their own decisions. He can no longer hide his magic power if he wants to save his friends from the evil wizard!
That concludes Part 4.
Now that we’ve covered aspects of the character that we can’t observe, what’s planned for Part 5? We’re heading into the final stretch – Character Motivations and Goals. And I’ll also provide you with a summary worksheet with prompts for creating your characters.