How to Create 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!

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  1. Reblogged this on Gayle Mullen Pace and commented:
    Kristen Lamb knows how to make a writer pause. And think. She never fails to make me think. This time she’s delving into what makes a multi-dimensional character. No hero/heroine is always good and no antagonist is pure evil (although it’s fun to write them that way). If you’re struggling with your characters, give this blog post a thorough read. I snagged it and put where I can read it over and over. Then go over to her site and read more of her articles.

  2. I reblogged your post. Great info for writers of all genres.

  3. A brilliant post.
    I’m just trying to get my act together with this fiction thing and characterisation; so thanks for some great information.
    I would link back to you on your blog, but as yet there is no completed novel.
    Maybe sometime in the future I will complete it.

    1. Link away and THANK YOU!

  4. This was a timely blog for me. I’m thinking I may just have to hide my MC’ s love-intrest’ s background until later. Yeah, don’t explain why he did what he did. Yeah, make the MC wonder a bit. Yeah. 😉 Thanks, Kristen.

  5. Keeping this handy as I assess my current cast list. Thanks for breaking it down so well!

  6. Thanks for breaking this down in a very practical way! I’m keeping it handy 🙂

  7. Thanks so much for helping me see a new perspective on my characters’ motivation(s)! I’ve been struggling with what the issue would be between my two MCs and now I can see it. I always read your blog but rarely comment. This one has brought me out of lurkdom to thank you. This blog is GOLD! I’m going to share…

    • Pirkko Rytkonen on January 28, 2015 at 9:03 am
    • Reply

    Perfect timing as I’m just thinking about the secrets my character holds. Got to add more lies to the story. Thanks.

  8. My characters hide plenty, but I must work harder at making them tell active lies, as well pretend they are something they’re not. Thanks for that post, Kristen. It has filled me with glea. I’m rubbing my hands together at the thought of constructing a compulsive liar.

  9. I love this line, “The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him.” I have to tell me inner “The Spawn” no to all those unnecessary flashbacks, no matter how badly I want to share them.

  10. Ah yes, but keeping secrets is different from having your characters act in unexplainable ways, isn’t it? I am having a hard time making my characters appear on the page the way they do in my mind. I know their secrets and that they don’t want them revealed (and revealing them too soon will kill the tension). But if I don’t let a little bit out, they come off as unsympathetic because they have a scaly exterior protecting their mashed-potato heart.
    Such a quandary…

    • Bob on January 28, 2015 at 11:09 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for your post and the linked references to your previous post. As luck would have it I’m currently working on a novel and am having a struggle with characters. My characters turn out to be just nice people working through a problem and I view that a boring but I don’t know how else to portray them. Perhaps this is because I’ve never had to deal much with deceitful and conflicted people or at least was not able to identify these characteristics with sufficient clarity even in fiction.

  11. Thanks so much for this helpful post. My MC is terribly flawed, but your points will guide me to make her, and the other characters, truly authentic.

  12. There are so many valuable points you’ve mentioned here. I’ve often considered them, but seeing them typed down makes it so much clearer that so much should go into creating a character…you readers benefit from that and you create someone whole, someone you could imagine in real life. Thank you. I’m planning my new novel at the moment, so this will be in the back I my mind!

  13. Reblogged this on The Compass Locket.

  14. What a great post. I guess I never thought about characters holding “secrets” and how you shouldn’t reveal things too soon. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know what to reveal and whent o reveal it. Thanks, Kristen!

  15. Thank u for making me think . your writing provided a great insight into many of my thoughts . especially thus blog really touched a special cord with me .

  16. Reblogged this on scribblings007.

    • Lanette Kauten on January 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm
    • Reply

    Good post. Unfortunately, my antagonists are better at protecting their secrets than my protagonists. Maybe that’s why everyone falls in love with the antagonist from my latest book but never talks about my protagonist. I want to keep the high interest for my antag, but it’s my protagonist’s story. Sigh. It’s just like the antag to steal the spotlight. She’s so good at it.

    Anyway, I retweeted this blog post.

  17. When I wrote my novel I was taking a yearlong novel writing class. My main male protagonist had a secret – my instructor had said she didn’t like that and that I should reveal it early on – that advice always felt off to me …
    I put a link to your blog in yesterday’s blog post – I hope that counts (I post weekly)

  18. Thanks for this. This, combined with the previous entry in this series has given me some food for thought where my characters are concerned.

  19. Timely. I am revising a novel. I am looking at my characters closely to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to. Hahahaha. Yeah. Control freak me. I even went back and snagged the April blog entry. Thanks! And I’ve linked to my blog,

  20. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee.

    • Anna Erishkigal on January 28, 2015 at 2:33 pm
    • Reply

    I had so much fun playing ‘unreliable narrator’ in my last book 3:-) Oh, the POV dropped hints she had things in her past she didn’t want to think about because they were too painful, but when readers get to the big reveal close to the end they’ve emailed me and said they had to stop reading and go cry. So tricky, to keep secrets while inside your POV characters head. But it -is- possible if you show them using the tricks we all use to not think about stuff we don’t want to face. Some favorite self-deception tricks are:

    1) Get busy;
    2) Every time your POV starts to think of the past, they think “I can’t deal with this crap today” and go do something else;
    3) Blame the other person for some unrelated thing and pick a fight;
    4) Every time something reminds them of the past, have them rely upon some crutch like having a drink or going for a run.

  21. Great post. Couldn’t agree more. You have the information it is for the characters to show it.

  22. Very useful advice.

  23. Oh, yes, everybody lies. Thanks for the reminder. As a family law attorney, I discovered even the best of clients lied because they wanted to look good. Sometimes it was a lie of perception: “I don’t have a drinking problem,” but his bank statement showed hundreds of dollars spent monthly at the liquor store.

  24. Just reading this is already giving me ideas for new characters, and improvements to characters I have already written a bit about. And it’s good advice. Thanks!

    • Kessie on January 28, 2015 at 8:36 pm
    • Reply

    I’d love for you to elaborate on when it’s good to keep secrets, and when the one character is jumping up and down shouting, “Oh, I know something extremely important to the plot!” and the other characters are going, “Oh shut up, you’re stupid/a kid/unimportant and we don’t want to listen to anything you have to say.” And this goes on for FIVE CHAPTERS. I think that goes beyond keeping secrets and into a stupid miscommunication that goes on WAY too long.

    Lately in my stories, whenever I have a character with important information–the girl saw a scary undead sorcerer and realllllllly wants to tell the hero about it–and then for some reason she doesn’t … I stop and ask myself, why not? If I were in her shoes, I’d spill the beans faster than a bucket of lead weights on Jupiter. Usually it just requires a little plot re-jiggering, but revealing a bit of information a few pages earlier than I’d planned so far has worked just fine.

  25. It amazes me how you seem to post on things I’ve been dealing with our thinking about a lot lately, in the personal realm.
    I think you might be an accidental mind-ninja.

  26. Working on character development for a feature film today, and this came as a perfect pre-write refresher. Thanks, K!

  27. I love this post! Especially about being a secret keeper. One of the most frustrating things about reading new writers’ work is having a character’s whole history laid out before I even have a chance to fully care that they have a problem. It’s like having the punchline of a joke explained before it’s even been delivered. 🙁

    • Jacey Bedford on January 29, 2015 at 9:24 am
    • Reply

    Reblogged this on Jacey Bedford and commented:
    Interesting blog post from Kristen Lamb

  28. I just pasted this and the linked character blog into a Word doc to keep on my desktop. Fantastic information and ideas – so blaring this out on social media.

    Thank you so much for this fantastic article.

  29. This is SUCH an important and thoughtful post.Thank you. Every writer of fiction needs to study it.

  30. I love the secret idea. I first came across the secret as part of the character profile in a workshop given by Martha Alderson, and I’ve tried to incorporate it into character creation ever since. I’m in awe of the way Toni Morrison builds on the secret in Beloved–the narrative keeps circling around to Sethe’s “event” time and again. Each time the narrative circles back to it, the author reveals a little more of what happened on that fateful day and why. On the flip side, many readers object to the secret keeping and ultimate reveal in Presumed Innocent because Turow uses a first person narrator who could have told the reader his secret from the start. That didn’t bother me though.

    I’m going to tweet about this great post. Also, I’m pleased to let you know I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award: Congratulations on your many successes!

  31. My current WIP is about a family secret reveled after a death so this post is sooo timely. Thanks, I will re-plot to keep the cat in the bag until the end. Just need to bump up the foreshadowing.

  32. Reblogged this on Dannie Marsden and commented:
    Great blog!

  33. Like keeping secrets rocks; so does this article. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you for writing it, Kristen Lamb. Developing complex characters for my first fiction novel is tremendously challenging and your words to write it down for myself and then hide it was helpful. So powerful.

  34. Reblogged this on writersback and commented:
    There is mystery all around us and in our writing and makes for great fiction. This article by Kristen Lamb rocks!

  35. It’s interesting to note that the deepest emotional issues, and the most closely held secrets, almost always involve some level of shame. Shame is an extremely powerful emotion and a definite motivator for behaviour—good or bad.

  36. This is fantastic – I’m bookmarking it as a reference guide for when I’m writing, and then again when I’m editing.

  37. Reblogged this on sharonholly.

  38. Reblogged this on JCU // Creative Writing Workshop.

    • Rachel Thompson on January 30, 2015 at 10:24 am
    • Reply

    Good stuff, nice restatement of what other knowledgeable writers have said. Larry Brook’s book, Story Engineering, has a good section on this. Deb Dixon goes at it with a different angel. Looking at it from various perspectives is educational. Orson Scott Card’s books on writing also show the how-to of character building. Learning behavioral psychology and mythic paradigm(s) is helpful too.

    • Anne Stone on January 30, 2015 at 7:26 pm
    • Reply

    This is great and so timely for me. I just asked a question on Facebook in our Writing 101 Fix-it Friday group about when to reveal certain “truths” about the hero–so this totally relates! Thank you!!

    • carrienichols on January 30, 2015 at 10:17 pm
    • Reply

    Wonderful article! Thank you.

  39. This is a fantastic article …. thank you Kristen. Somehow you manage to nail a difficult subject in an easy to follow style that is thought provoking and challenging to implement.

  40. I really like your insight Kristen. My hero needs some lies.

  41. Coincidentally, I’ve just been delving into the Wounds, Delusions, Unbearable Feelings and Secrets of the characters in my WIP (stage play) – secrets they especially want to keep from their nearest and dearest, naturally…

  42. I love House! 😀 And I think that’s very true. Another show I keep coming back to when it comes to characters is Firefly. There, Shepherd Book is a priest with a dark past that nobody knows about. How would a priest know how to fight, right? Or why would he have connections in places that aren’t exactly a part of his circle? Yet he acts in a manner very gracious and forgiving. It’s maddening. The show keeps you guessing at his backstory, and never tells you the whole story. You end up completely intrigued and curious as to what secrets this guy has in his past.

  1. […] Kristen Lamb knows how to make a writer pause. And think. She never fails to make me think. This time she’s delving into what makes a multi-dimensional character. No hero/heroine is always good and no antagonist is pure evil (although it’s fun to write them that way). If you’re struggling with your characters, give this blog post a thorough read. I snagged it and put where I can read it over and over. Then go over to her site and read more of her articles. […]

  2. […] just read How to Create Multi-Dimensional Characters–Everybody Lies. Definitely an interesting […]

  3. […] How to Create Multi-Dimensional Characters – Everybody Lies (Kristen Lamb) – “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!’ ” […]

  4. […] « How to Create Multi-Dimensional Characters—Everybody Lies […]

  5. […] Everybody lies, Kristen Lamb says, and that’s one of the many ways to make sure you have interesting, multi-dimensional characters. I appreciated her point that these lies don’t have to be big ones that always have the huge reveal at the end of the book, but that all characters suppress feelings, behaviors, and reactions to different events. These are their hidden motivations and fears. Of course, those big lies are pretty useful, too, for storytelling. […]

  6. […] While backstory is important to character, Roz Morris explains how backstory can sabotage your novel. Kristen Lamb peeks a one secret to creating multidimensional characters: everybody lies. […]

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