Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters

by Lynette M. Burrows

Many writers spend days, weeks, months, even years creating characters using complex character profile worksheets. The best characters aren’t a collection of data points on a worksheet. Depending upon data points like the genre, physical attributes, favorite desert, or what he’s wearing may disrupt story flow even to the point of what many call writer’s block. Not that those data points are unimportant, but focusing on the lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power. That emotional journey ties everything together into a book your readers can’t put down.

The Why

Lisa Cron calls it your character’s misbelief. KM Weiland calls it your character’s lie. Brandilyn Collins calls it inner values. And Donald Maass says it’s how we get readers to make their own emotional journey. What are they talking about?

Most people have morals, values, or other belief systems that guide them in their choices. It’s the reason they choose B over A when A and B are equal. Call it an inner guidance system. Most of us don’t think about it much, it just is.

When we read a story or watch a film, we connect with characters whose inner guidance system is like ours. Choices the character makes, and the possibilities rejected by that character, fascinate us. The more we wonder, “would I have done that” and “what’s he going to do now,” the more we are hooked.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll call that inner guidance “value,” from now on.

Keep the Train Moving

Lisa Cron calls those values the story’s third rail. In an electric railroad system, the third rail is the rail that supplies the power. It keeps the train moving.

Example

Your character is a nurse who believes other people’s needs are greater than his own. He skips lunch to take care of a patient’s needs. He doesn’t leave at the end of his shift until another nurse arrives to care for his patients, and he stops to help a panhandler who looks ill.

Each of those situations shows his positive value. So far, so good. The lie he tells himself is that he’s fine. He can do with skipping a meal, or less sleep, or less money. That his needs aren’t important.

Loss of Power to the Train

If you haven’t created your character’s values or you aren’t consistently expressing those values, your story runs out of power.

Example

Two patients share a single room. One patient is a famous singer, the other had emergency surgery last night and is in a lot of pain. Your nurse notices the singer has lots of boisterous visitors and the surgery patient cannot rest. The nurse keeps walking because it’s lunchtime. And he’s broken the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

That’s a full stop of the story and maybe your reader’s interest.

A story needs to run down a track toward and ending, but there also needs to be a push and pull.

More Than One Value

There is a direct correlation between a character’s values and emotions. And it’s not only one emotion or value your character needs. The character also needs a value that prohibits him from reaching his goal. Otherwise, why has he not been able to reach his goal before the story starts? This is where the fullness of your story’s power comes from.

Two incompatible (not necessarily opposite) values drive your character. This ensures that he will struggle to get to his goal. It’s why he hasn’t reached this goal prior to the story start. These conflicting values provide him with a struggle without external antagonists.

Example

Your nurse believes marriage is a sacred trust that must be unbroken. And he has a wife who is ready to divorce him because he’s always working extra and never has time for her. Now, his values are in conflict. His wife needs more of his time and so do his patients.

How can he reconcile those two sets of needs? This story will be about how he decides which value he can break and which one he cannot.

Your Character’s Lies, Secrets, and Scars

The why behind your character’s lies, secrets, and scars is important. It’s the backstory that supports the lie or secret or scar (emotional, not necessarily physical). Your reader doesn’t need to know the whole backstory, but you do. If you understand why your character will believe one thing to the point of making choices that are self-destructive, you will empower your story.

Example

As a child, your nurse may have witnessed his father’s deep devotion to his dying mother. That’s a scar. He could have been further traumatized by his father’s total collapse after the mother’s death.

His father’s collapse and need to be institutionalized is your nurse’s secret, his shame. His lie to himself is that he fears he will suffer the same fate if his wife divorces him. That lie might force him to make decisions that go against his belief that his patients’ needs come before his.

I’ve tied his lies, secrets, and scars all together in this example, but your character can be more complex with separate reasons behind his lies, secrets, and scars.

The Relationship between Value and Theme

As a person, you may not think much about your values. As a writer, the more you use those values in your main characters, the more powerful your story becomes. This increased power is especially true if you use your characters’ values to sharpen the point of your story, your story’s theme.

Let’s say your theme is community good is greater than personal good. Your character’s overt value can be the same or a variation of that. Your nurse’s value that other people’s needs are greater than his own fits nicely in this theme.

Example

Forgive me, but I’m going to use the easy target, a pandemic. Your nurse’s supervisor is asking him to work extra because some of his co-workers are sick. His wife is asking him to go to her parent’s mountain retreat with her. If he doesn’t go, she’ll consider the marriage over.

Based on his previous choices and lessons he’s learned, his decision will be to work for the community good (your theme). His wife serves him the divorce papers she’d already had drawn up before she leaves. He learns he’s strong enough to let go of her, that caring for his community makes him strong, and you can end your story there. Or you can add a little twist that he’s beginning a new relationship with a co-worker whose values are the same.

Note

Don’t tell your reader about the alignment of your character’s values and your story’s theme. Just like the train conductor collects your ticket without discussing the function of the third rail, your character’s decisions and actions reveal his values.

Test His Values in Every Scene

How and why your character overcomes his struggle is why we read.

We humans live every day with lies, secrets and scars. On at least a subconscious level, we read to find ways to make it through our personal struggles. So the more you put his value to the test in every scene, the more you hopelessly hook your reader.

Let your reader feel the struggle your character feels, see it from his eyes. Test him in ways that will surprise and thrill your reader. They will love you for it.

Still Not Convinced?

Look at the three character’s images on this post. What impressions do you have of them? They aren’t the same, are they? Yes, we chose these images for the greatest contrast. But the difference between each of these characters is more than just the clothes or setting. We humans make judgments about what other people value. You probably have a few ideas about what lies, secrets, and scars those three have.

It’s their lies, secrets and scars that make them individuals. And in the story world, those values keep those characters moving toward an inevitable clash. A clash you, the writer, can use to hook your readers to the very last page.

Have you created a character from his lies, secrets, or scars? How did that move your story forward? If you haven’t tried this method of character building before, will you try it now?

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About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all show up in her stories. She writes thrilling science fiction readers can’t put down.

Her series, The Fellowship

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