Lies, Denial & Buried Secrets—How to Create Dimensional Characters

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

As mentioned in a previous post, one of my all-time favorite series is True Detective. There is a line that’s repeated in the series and it is SO perfect for our purposes today.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

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. 

Plot is the push that drives the change. Without the plot problem, the protagonist is never forced to face weakness and can comfortably remain unchanged. Plot forces the protagonist to face the worst self in order to eventually unveil the best self.

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 Batman 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. Most of us have secrets we keep even from ourselves 😉 .

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).

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.

I’m working on a fiction series and currently outlining Book 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?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, 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


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  1. Reblogged this on MDellert-dot-Com and commented:
    Because cardboard characters are meant for bookstore displays, not for books.

    • jimcopeland on July 15, 2015 at 9:27 am
    • Reply

    You are so right…

  2. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  3. Great points today.

  4. Excellent post. You always give direct and very useful information. I have reblogged this post.

  5. Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    This is an excellent and useful post. Kristen Lamb always provides strong information for writers.

  6. You always teach in a way that’s clear and understandable.

  7. I may have missed something. Has the log-line class gone by? If so are you offering it again?

    You reminded me of the times I shoved the dirty dishes into the stove whenever my m-i-l was coming to visit. Worked out well until I forgot they were in there and turned on the oven. Hey, I had no dishwasher and was going to school and working full-time with three young kids.

  8. Another good one, Kristen.

  9. This was interesting and very useful. Thanks a lot Kristen!

    • Sarah Hernandez on July 15, 2015 at 11:37 am
    • Reply

    this was really interesting. I saw how the first part I am already doing, but I think I might be revealing too much too soon. I will have to go back take a second look to see how I can draw it out more. Thanks!!

  10. Thanks for this Kristen. ANOTHER great post! Particularly useful in my genre as I piece together my debut psychological thriller novel. In this genre, secrets and lies are standard. I’d have no story without them! Thanks again. Mark

  11. Good post and spot on in many ways. Thanks.

  12. Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  13. Thanks, Kristen. So timely for me. I wrote up this morning thinking about a secondary character in my NIP who is liked by everyone and seems to be this wonderful person that everyone just falls in love with on first meeting. Realized that it will be much more interesting to make this her “false front” – after all, she’s an actress — and she’s adopted this as a role. Underneath she’s a manipulator who will cause problems for my protagonist and her daughter. Thanks for the reinforcement of my “feeling.”

  14. Hi Kristen,
    I just found you and am so grateful! I can’t seem to read your posts fast enough. Your suggestions around secret-keeping characters is so timely. I write humor and non-fiction, but there’s a fictional little lady playing around in my brain. Two other characters joined her and they are having a full blown party! I feel a story forming, but the process of writing fiction is foreign to me. At your convenience, could you expand on how to pace how much you divulge? You want suspense and tension, but yet reveal enough so the reader doesn’t feel like they were tricked….right? What POV do you prefer?
    I will definitely be back – I need to check out your books. Thank you for the great information!

  15. Thanks Kristen,
    Greed is almost a main character in my book The Cocktail. Good for a bunch of lies.

  16. I have a short story gathering dust in the bottom drawer I might resurrect.

  17. Reblogged this on Macjoyful's Minimal Musings and commented:
    Another great article on writing by Kristen Lamb. This one deals with lies and creating “dimensional characters”.

  18. Reblogged this on Sunflowers for Moira and commented:
    More important writing lessons here.

  19. Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
    I love being given permission to lie 🙂 One of my favourite things about writing fiction…

  20. Thanks for reminding us that it is a good to lie (if you are a writer)

    • Dave on July 16, 2015 at 12:26 pm
    • Reply

    Reblogged this on Jordanfel's Blog.

  21. Thanks for another great post. I love having the sense that things are withheld and the only way to find them out is to keep reading. That’s what good writing should do, right? Sometimes, it should even leave you pondering “why” after the book is done.

    However, not all readers (or writers) are like me. A few fellow writers in my critique group always ask me to explain, explain, explain. I’m happy to do so in our group meetings… but not in my fiction! Maybe I’ll point them to this blog post the next time they tell me they really want to know something about a character that I’m not yet prepared to reveal.

  22. I found this on Charles French’s post. It’s most helpful and I have copied it to my writing tips. I have none of the above so I do not need to be entered into any contest.. Thank you for a wonderful lesson.

  23. I’m so glad you are offering your Hooking Your Reader -1st Five Pages again. I feel like Karma led me to your blog post today. I signed up last month, but unfortunately I didn’t get to participate. It was completely my fault. I signed up knowing that it would be during my family beach trip, but assumed I could sneak away from the kids for a while. Well, they weren’t having it. It’s bad enough when both parents bring files from the office on vacation, but when I attempted to get away for anything related to writing, the guilt trip and pouty faces won outright. They’ve put up with mom and dad attending classes when we used to go on our “Summer School For Lawyers,” vacation in Florida, because … well the trip was paid for by the office so a few seninars a day was a small concession for a week at the beach. This trip the kids needed my undivided attention and with one leaving for college in the fall and one dealing with some serious moody issues, I needed to concentrate on family time.

    I’m delighted that I will have a second chance to catch your course and this time , mom’s time will be set in stone. Thanks for offering it again and for the added bonus levels. I’m really looking forward to it. I enjoyed this post. I often get too carried away with the action scenes and working to hide clues and I too often overlook things like lying characters and the multiple faces we show the world. Lying characters equal opportunities to amp up the mystery and suspense. Thanks again.

    Melissa Sugar
    Twitter @msugar13

  24. I’ve been having a bit of trouble writing characters that are consistent with themselves–the correct responses to the situations. Thank you for the tips!

    • Ann-Louise Truschel on July 17, 2015 at 5:24 pm
    • Reply

    I read your paragraph about resisting the need to explain. That is one of my biggest problems. I feel the need to supply explanations in great detail. In short, I tend to beat them to death. Sometimes we writers need to hear: Don’t do that anymore!


  25. A fantastic blog post, Kristen. I love it.

  26. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Kristen Lamb, owner of the Reader’s Digest 101 best Websites for Writers 2015 and author of the #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer, has published another excellent blog post, this time about how to create dimensional characters. An excellent guidance. Thank you, Kristen.

  27. Thanks for this post! I have two characters. One is more well-rounded than the other. My second character is in danger of being a caricature rather than a character, so I must do some more work to develop her more fully (she’s a dragon living in Vancouver). I’m always recommending your blog to everyone, and I have your book now to read through as well. 🙂

  28. Another great post Kristen, I will reblog to share with my writing friends in UK.

  29. Reblogged this on Susan Pope Books and commented:
    Thought I would share with great blog from Kristen Lamb with the writing friends in my community. Some Americans do talk sense.

  30. Wonderful words of encouragement we can all benefit from.

  31. Thanks for doing this! I love writing, and I agree fully, secrets are awesome for books! This is truly an awesome piece of information I would recommend to others… including some of those popular authors nowadays *sigh* Thanks again!

  32. ****Comment unrelated to the topic at hand, sorry about that.
    I can’t fund your email on this website so hope you don’t mind me posting my question in here.

    I went and looked at the books you have for sale and was wondering what one is your favorite that you wrote? None of them look like what I’d usually read such as fantasy, horror, thrillers or a mystery. So pick one for me? (lol?) Honestly, I can read almost any type of book. I finally saved up a nice chunk of cash to load up on my visa debit card and will be itching to buy some. (yay!)

    Well, that and I’m going to finally have Microsoft word, not just the free one that comes with windows. Happy day. This is a good year.

    1. My book, “The Devil’s Dance” is a mystery thriller. Should be something you’d enjoy.

  1. […] Lies, Denial & Buried Secrets—How to Create Dimensional Characters. […]

  2. […] Kristen Lamb: Lies, Denial & Buried Secrets—How to Create Dimensional Characters […]

  3. […] Lies, Denial & Buried Secrets—How to Create Dimensional Characters […]

  4. […] from Kristen Lamb, on Lies, Denials, and Buried Secrets. Everyone lies. Everyone has secrets. They may not be the “destroy someone’s life/end […]

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