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 Call of Duty 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).
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 or control, 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 believe 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.
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.
Secret #4–The Lies We Tell Ourselves
Character arc is very often birthed from the biggest lies of all—the lies we tell ourselves. Your protagonist in the beginning should be raw an unformed. She has not yet been through the crucible (plot) that will fire out her impurities. Many of these “impurities” are the lies she tells herself.
I don’t need anyone’e help.
I am fine on my own.
I don’t have a problem.
These self-delusions are the biggest reason that your protagonist would fail if pitted against the antagonist in the beginning.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Army of Darkness. Even a silly low-budget movie takes advantage of the self-delusion. Ash is transported into another world where a great evil has awoken and seeks the Necronomicon (which is his only way back home).
Ash is a selfish ass who cares only about himself. He tells himself that others don’t matter, that he doesn’t really care about them and that he’s fine on his own. And he believes his own BS.
The challenges he faces (and often creates because of his poor character) change him and reveal that he was really lying to himself. He does kinda dig being the hero and he really does care about those around him. The lone-wolf maverick rises to be a leader who unites a frightened and divided people against the forces of darkness.
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 everything out in detail for your own use…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?
Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.
I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.
Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!
How and WHY are we using FREE!?
Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, 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.