Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters—Everybody Lies

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 9.47.12 AM
Image via the award-winning show “House.”

Back in the Spring we started talking about ways to create multi-dimensional characters. Then I probably saw something shiny and, in case you are wondering? NO, I can’t catch the red dot. But I don’t give up easily 😀 .

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible. 

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Gears of War T-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

How could she just LEAVE those babies?
How could she just LEAVE those babies?
Image via IMDB “The Joy Luck Club”

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Seeking the truth is painful...
Seeking the truth is painful…
Image via “Winter’s Bone”

I’m working on a fiction series and nearly finished with Book Two of three. But in Book One, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts and loves, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such. 

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write it out for you…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

63 thoughts on “Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters—Everybody Lies”

  1. andyhollomanandyholloman

    great as usual kristen, would love to win a critique of my new WIP, thanks for your wisdom

  2. Diana BeebeDiana Beebe

    Congratulations on finishing your draft! Woohoo!

  3. RosiRosi

    Wow. I’m going to print this out and read it every time I sit down to write. I’ll be posting this one, along with your earlier one on character, on my blog this week. Thanks.

  4. Stéphanie Noël (@atuaStephanieN)Stéphanie Noël (@atuaStephanieN)

    Great post. I have a character in my current novel, she was only supposed to be the protagonist’s best friend (she was in the two first drafts) but I’ve decided to make her more interesting and give her a big secret. The story works better now that I’ve added that.

  5. renée a. schuls-jacobsonrenée a. schuls-jacobson

    My protagonist is less interesting than my antagonist. Of course. And my protagonist’s best friend is actually really interesting. I think I identify SOOOOOO much with my protagonist, I’m having a hard time making her more interesting. A few good lies in there would be good. She needs to cry in her car and have someone notice her runny mascara. She needs to get really mad at her kids. Her kids need to fight. It’s too peaceful in that damn house. Shit.

  6. Anne R. AllenAnne R. Allen

    Congrats on finishing the WIP!!. Sounds fascinating! Great tips.

  7. SweetSongSweetSong

    I hate flashbacks, but I find I always fall into one of two pitfalls: I reveal my secrets either way too early or way too late. XD Oops.
    Congrats on finishing your draft!

  8. Shea FordShea Ford

    Congratulations on finishing your WIP! 😀 Looking forward to reading it!

    I’ve got lots of secrets in my WIP. First of all, one of my primary characters is an Irish druid. Historically, they never wrote anything down, so they are like one big secret anyway. This, of course, is the whole reason I’ve chosen to use them so that I can take a lot of liberties. 😀

  9. Alison DohertyAlison Doherty

    Congrats for finishing your first draft … Question about flashbacks. In general I hate them too. I think they make the narrative seem choppy and break the tension. But in my current draft I find myself sporadically having characters remember things from the past, only flashing back for 3 or 4 sentences. I can’t decide if this is me breaking the no flashback rule, or not. Do you have any thoughts?

  10. Richard MonroRichard Monro

    Kristen, this series contains great information. Thanks. Yea
    on finishing the WIP.

  11. Lexa CainLexa Cain

    This is so true. I think it works better with adult and NA than YA though. Or at least I had an inordinate number of betas asking me why my characters would say one thing but think another. (Like we all don’t do that!) Great post! 🙂

  12. Lanette KautenLanette Kauten

    Great blog on characterization AND tension. I tweeted this post.

  13. 35andupcynicismonhold35andupcynicismonhold

    “Everybody lies.” i think i first read that from Eudora Welty. she said she learned that truth from her own family – a constant stream of lies while getting ready for work, during breakfast and before leaving home… hello, Kristen. thanks for this post, warm regards… 🙂

  14. EnsisEnsis

    Lies that drive tension?
    White Chicks
    Juwana Mann
    Twelfth Night
    The Little Mermaid

    Great post!

  15. Tiffany PittsTiffany Pitts

    Thank you. This is directly relevant to my writing for today and gave me a badly needed metal push.

  16. LissaLissa

    Awesome. I love that you used House as an example. Congrats on finishing your WIP!!! YAY! I’m going to bookmark this post so I can go back to it to remind myself NOT to tell the secrets but show them slowly. 😀

  17. Dennis LangleyDennis Langley

    I love this post. A character without a secret is just a crash test dummy.

  18. Rick DempseyRick Dempsey

    Kristen you rock. My novel has taken shape based often on your blog recommendations. Some of these items should have been obvious; but in the midst of creating it is easy to “not see” these elements. i really appreciate now my opportunity to go back and inject lies and secrets into my protagonist… I totally agree, those things make the novel.

  19. jwtroemnerjwtroemner

    You referred again to personal extinction– one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that the Old Way really was better, that we’d be happier if we went back to the way things were, etc.

    Thank you for posting this. You’ve got a whole pot of ideas boiling in my head now.

  20. Debra BrownDebra Brown

    Arggh. A friend who grew up in the writing world in Hollywood and has written great novels told me my scene (panic attack) was not realistic enough because what happened did not seem to be bad enough to cause panic. There was obviously more to the problem, and I should let people in on it. So I added single line flashback/thoughts. Now I am wondering. The problem is, it is hard to tell from my chair which is better!

  21. Diana StevanDiana Stevan

    A very meaty post. Like the emphasis on secret. It is what keeps me turning the page.

  22. LinbyLinby

    Great post, and some very nice “teaching moments” hiding under a picture of House. What more could one want in spring?

  23. tomwisktomwisk

    Congratulations on the WIP. I had a character who wasn’t exactly truthful and his girlfriend was duped. The dialogue would move along “He said” “She said” to a bomb in the middle “He lied” Just thought it was nice to bring it out front.

  24. Brenda HarrisBrenda Harris

    Thanks for the awesome pointers. I love it when you make me think. 🙂

  25. Yvette CarolYvette Carol

    Have you seen Iron Man 3 yet, Kristen? They’ve given Tony Stark panic attacks resulting from the events in The Avengers movie. Even a super hero has flaws that can be the undoing of him, and therefore the entire world. He can’t sleep. He’s suffering, yet he’s trying to hide it from the world. I thought this made the character of Iron Man a lot more interesting. Funny, in fiction, flaws go a long way.

  26. CarrieCarrie

    Love this post and ideas – I tend to get caught up in explaining the moment rather than letting the moment speak for itself 🙂

  27. danieloccenodanielocceno

    I do today, but like in the past my Roman Catholic upbringing still wants me to tell the truth eventually. But when you start believing the whole world is against you and even your mother is listening to demi-gods, you start a new attitude. Who knows; I might be successful, yet. You have to fight back to succeed. It was in your boxing Info Dump.

    If not for the fall of ERON, Dick Cheney might be president today. He lost his DEEP Pockets. I am curious about your WIP. I like Info Dumping the business world in my stories.

    “This is one of the reasons I HATE flashbacks. Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such.” I guess; it would depend on the genre. You almost have to flashback or explain, to solve a good mystery.

    “Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.” I will keep it in mind for a romance. The ladies who I want to date are already being told all about me and many things never happened. Counter-intelligence, I want to use it in a novel. Prevent the marriage; prevent the presidency. BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN was a GREAT WOMAN. Many American presidents might have not, if they did not marry into the right family.

  28. Tamara LeBlancTamara LeBlanc

    First of all, Kristen, HUGE congrats on finishing your WIP!! YAY!!! Best wishes on its success 🙂
    Second, I loved that you used Winter’s Bone as an example in this post. The movie is the epitome of false guilt and helps hit your point home so well.
    I can’t think of a movie or even a book, at the moment, that shows a bunch of lies, but I’m sure later this evening (probably when I’m washing the hair dye from my roots) I’ll think of something. Darn, I hate when I blank :/
    Great post! It’s a keeper.
    Have a wonderful evening,
    Tamara

  29. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    The “Be a Good Secret-Keeper” is exactly what I needed to hear today. I was editing a chapter a couple of days ago, and it wasn’t working. I wasn’t sure why, but now I know–too much, too soon. Thanks!

  30. Janna G. NoelleJanna G. Noelle

    I really enjoyed this post. I was very glad to see the word “good” in all caps in “Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper”. That really does seem to be the operative word. I’ve read many books where the secret that is eventually revealed is so ridiculous, it wasn’t even worth keeping, which gives the entire plot a rather contrived feeling.

    I tend to best enjoy stories where the secrets are kept from other characters, not from the reader.

    “but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum.”

    This is true, yet there’s also tension to be created through the reader having knowledge other characters don’t, and watching with a sense of dread as they ignorantly go about making the situation 100X worse in ways they never would’ve done if only they’d known. Tension of the “I wonder how it’s gonna go down with this sh*t finally hits the fan” variety.

  31. MaryMary

    In my memoir, the protagonist–yours truly–has many flaws. The antagonists (there are two) reveal with time that they have hearts after all. I used to think that if I were writing fiction, I’d make the protagonist brave and smart, doing everything perfect, while the “bad guys” would remain heartless, good-for-nothing-SOBs, evil and must be destroyed! I soon learn the error of my ways and your article painted the picture clearly. Even in fiction there are thorns.
    Great article, Kristen.

  32. DebbieDebbie

    Jean valJean keeps his secrets from Cosette but not from the reader. I think the tension is in the fear that he will be found out; that Cosette will not be kept safe; that Fantine’s attempts to give her daughter a better life will have been in vain. Sometimes it is knowing and as a reader hoping that the secret is kept, is the key to a page turner I think.

  33. Sally ChippendaleSally Chippendale

    This is a timely post. I’m editing my first book and the amount of explanations that I’m cutting is adding up. I re read it and think “why am I giving this away so soon.” Slash, slash, slash. Thank you for sharing some excellent advice.

  34. Lin Shu-AnLin Shu-An

    Great post!
    It’s so hard to resist putting in everything you know about your character all at once, but readers do love a mystery. I started a WIP with a flashback that after considerable hesitation, I edited out. The story is less bulky, and I’m keeping that bit to see if I can recycle and make a short.
    Thanks for the tips!

  35. vickipaulusvickipaulus

    Once again, thanks for sharing your practical writing advice and putting in to context that is easy to understand. Hope I’m May’s winner:)

    • cynthiagrstaceycynthiagrstacey

      Fantastic Article Kristen. I loved it! Can’t wait to read more. I have reblogged it as well.

  36. Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites)Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites)

    That really resonated with me. I get so weary of books that have too much background information about a character that is all dumped in when we first meet him or her. This is information we, the author, need to know, but we don’t need to give it to the reader all in one big chunk. Or maybe we don’t need to give it at all. I remember when I was working with a filmmaker in NY on a script and he made me watch the first Terminator movie. When the movie opened in that most dramatic way, I immediately started asking Stephen who this guy was, where did he come from, why was he standing there naked. Stephen just kept saying, “Wait.” And I did. And I learned that trick of withholding and building tension.

  37. LisaLisa

    it’s always good to be reminded of these things. I tend to rush into the writing before I truly know the secrets of my characters….I’ll attempt to slow down and put some of these in place first, next time! Don’t have a blog, so I can’t link….

  38. Gwen StickleGwen Stickle

    Such a great post. This helps shape characters in unique ways. Thanks for the advice.

  39. Elizabeth SeckmanElizabeth Seckman

    Excellent post. Great information. And thanks for alleviating my guilt over hating flashbacks. I do not like them at all, not even when they did it in the Godfather movie. If you want to show the past, stick it in a prologue, then move the plot forward. Yank me from my linear time sequence and i get aggravated. I was always afraid to admit I hated them for fear of looking less literate.
    I feel vindicated. Thank you.

  40. Little Angelic RoseLittle Angelic Rose

    Great blog, thank you. I’m sure we all recognise these character points, they are true for all our favourite books, but we do need, sometimes, to be told WHY we like our favourite books and characters. I will certainly be checking back to your blog next time I sit down at my keyboard.

  41. julitownsendjulitownsend

    Love this post. This type of analysis of story structure is not something I do easily – probably why I have trouble pitching. AS I read this, I tried to think about my characters to see if I’ve done it right, and realised they do have secrets, tell lies and carry false guilt, so you’ve made me happy. Thank you.
    I’ll reblog if I can work out how.

  42. andrewknightonandrewknighton

    My all time favourite novel is The Great Gatsby, a story that revolves around a character whose life is a lie. Deception and its consequences are the engine that drive that story, and yet it never occurs to me to have characters lie. I think because what I’m creating is already untrue, in that it’s fiction, it doesn’t occur to me to take things further, into another layer of untruth. That and an over-reliance on dialogue for exposition, which is hard to do with lies.

  43. Janet K Brown (@janetkbrowntx)Janet K Brown (@janetkbrowntx)

    Good advice. Resisting the urge to tell the secret is the hard part, but I agree, worth the anticipation. I think of vacations. Looking forward to it is 1/2 the fun.

  44. lythyalythya

    Wonderful post. I’ve aalready rewritten my first chapter once (which is online, btw, it’s so horrible to edit something that’s already out) but this inspires me to do it yet again. There were quite a few things that I was too explicit about, but I think everything will work better if I hide up the lead’s relationship with her mother – the only thing she is really touchy about.

  45. julitownsendjulitownsend

    Reblogged this on Inspiration to Publication and commented:
    This is a great article. I love it when I read some writing advice, something I wasn’t earlier aware of, and discover I did it right. What a good feeling.
    In Absent Children, Jessamy feels false guilt, but she keeps it secret. In my work in progress, The Mother in Me, Crystal is scared, but puts on a false front of being tough. She also lies to protect herself.
    Do your characters tell lies, have secrets? What are they?

  46. pamelacreesepamelacreese

    Wonderful article and totally apt examples. Just taught a workshop on this aspect of character development and will def refer my group to your posts
    (really do hope you pull all your lovely advice into a book one day soon)

  47. PaigePaige

    Thanks with regard to providing such fantastic posting.

  48. CarradeeCarradee

    This is part of the fun I’m having with my Chronicles of Marsdenfel. Each novel has a different narrator, and though each narrator knows some of the same people, they trust different ones. As a result, each novel is another piece of the incomplete picture to who particular characters are.

    I’m enjoying it. ^_^

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