Tuesday, February 9, 2016

8 Secrets, Lies, Mistakes, and Wounds: The Trick to Creating Engaging Characters in Fiction (Part One)

We all lie. We may not admit it, we may not even know it, but we do. And those of us who are loudest to proclaim our honesty are often those who lie the worst. All we have to do is look at the current political campaign with a clear eye to see human nature in all its brutal glory. There are  candidates so convinced of their superiority that they can't see or (at least admit) the complexity of any issue or implementation. Other candidates are so eager to achieve a goal that they will bend the truth in any way necessary. Still others have studied what to say to sway voters to the point where they can hardly find their own voices, and others are so mired in proclaiming that the system is broken that they cannot offer viable solutions. And for every message, there is a willing ear who is able to tune out the doubts and filters that automatically alert us to the lies.

Why is that?

The reasons are as unique as fingerprints. Each of us measures truth according to our own individual barometers. Our definitions of truth bend and flex in ways that shield us from the lies we cannot bear to face. That's what makes us interesting as human beings, and that, also, is what makes for fascinating characters in fiction.

Fascinating Characters Are Wounded Characters

Whether we are writing commercial fiction, or literary fiction, or something in between, we have to understand the importance that emotional wounds and self-protection mechanisms play for both our characters and our readers. Characters who act but at the same time delude themselves, protect themselves, is the key to writing characters that resonate with readers.

Wounds make our characters:

  • Relatable to readers: Readers need to be able to identify with the characters in some way--to see their own needs, doubts, and fears within those characters. A character like Barrie in my Heirs of Watson Island series, for example, never felt loved by her own mother and therefore is afraid that she isn't lovable. That may not be an emotional wound that everyone shares, but they can understand and relate to it in some way because the need to be loved is universal.
  • Unable to see the obvious solutions: Problems within most books are solvable, but wounds shape the outlook of the characters and create a warped lens through which they see the world. That lens may be warped enough to make the obvious less obvious or to provide an entirely different perspective than is reasonable, right, or auspicious. Barrie's fear that she isn't entitled to love makes her unable to take the leap of faith that is required in all relationships. 
  • Conflicted about solving problems: Tension is what keeps readers reading--and that tension comes from the reasons why problems aren't easily solved. That can come from outside intervention, certainly, but the best tension comes from within the characters themselves, their conflicts and ambivalence about taking a specific course of action. The reasons for that conflict usually stem from their wounds and the things that they need psychologically as a result of those wounds. Barrie's own desperate need to be loved for herself makes her jump to the defense of those who might not deserve it.
  • Their own worst enemies: Because internal wounds give characters specifically skewed outlooks, they often behave in unreasonable ways. That leads them to react to situations and other characters in manners that may not be, ultimately, in their own self-interest. Barrie's fear that she isn't lovable makes her push away the people who could love her honestly and make her whole. 
  • Tell lies and keep secrets: Characters tend to protect their emotional wounds, or protect themselves from being hurt again in similar ways. They may not want people to see them the way that they see themselves, and so--consciously or without being aware of it at all--they may lie to themselves and others about who they really are and what they are really like. Keeping up with those lies may force them into being someone they were never meant to be--or it may force them to become better people. Barrie's fear that she isn't strong or courageous enough makes her too strong and too brave in some respects. Her hurt at the secrets her mother kept from her makes her unwilling to tell the boy she loves that his father has been keeping a secret from him all his life.
  • Misjudge the motives of others: Every interaction with another person has significance in a book, which usually results in some sort of a decision. That decision is made according to trust or distrust, faith or lack of faith, courage or lack of courage. Those interactions create lies and secrets, which lead to mistakes. Barrie could simply tell certain people about problems that crop up for her and about decisions that she has to make, but her fear that they will put themselves ahead of her without accounting for her needs makes telling confiding in them impossible for her. Those secrets and lies inevitably come back to bite her

Wounds Make Even Larger than Life Characters Real

Take some of the most iconic characters in fiction: Indiana Jones, Katniss Everdeen, Edward Cullen. The list goes on and on. They are each, in some way, larger than life, but they are humanized by their vulnerabilities. 
  • Indiana Jones never had much of a relationship with his father, so he's remained a bit petulant and childlike in his relationships with others.  (And he was afraid of snakes.) 
  • Katniss Everdeen hated the way that her mother checked out after her father died and took the responsibility for protecting her sister on herself. 
  • Edward Cullen hated the monster that he had become and was determined not to behave as a monster--or let Bella become one, even if that meant he had to lose her.
Consider how these vulnerabilities and emotional wounds made those characters behave and how that shapes the decisions they make that in turn drive the plot of each respective book or film. Some of my most loved scenes stem directly out of those wounds.

Next week in part two of this series, I'm going to provide a list of questions to ask yourself when developing emotionally wounded characters, including tips on for creating internal wounds that aren't generic and how to be true to the characters that you create. In the meantime, think about other wounded characters who've made you fall in love with them--both in fiction and in life. Who do you love and how are they broken? 

What Do You Think?

How thoroughly do you consider character wounds and emotional vulnerabilities when you are writing or planning your writing? What about when you're reading? Is it a high priority? A high enough priority? 

What scenes do you love that were caused by a character's secret wounds?

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Great post. Characters need to be flawed in order to have readers connect with them.

    1. Hi Catherine, I agree! Making characters too good is such an easy trap to fall into though. We equate likable with perfect, and that's so not the case, is it? : )

  2. Thanks for the insight!! It helps me poke at my characters and understand them better.

    1. Hope it helps, Traci! LOTS of questions for you coming in Part Two next week!

  3. Another great post. Lies and secret motivations. All to keep in mind as we write!

    1. Thanks, Carol! There's so much to remember, isn't there? : )

  4. Thanks for a very useful post. I will be linking to this one on my blog.


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