Developing Characters- What lies behind the mask?


Sometimes the thought of developing characters can be a daunting. It’s easy to start out with a character type in mind; you might see him, know his mannerisms, hear him speak. But how do you develop a character that stays authentic with his actions, motivations, and rings true with a reader? It’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the facets writing a character can encompass. Creating unusual and interesting characters is relatively simple but really bringing them to life to become powerful and evocative is a skill. Many times when we write, we can delve too deeply into the character without developing the first layer.The surface. The skin. The mask or façade the character shows to the world. This mask hides what’s really inside and keeps the character safe…or so he thinks. It’s the protective armour that the character wraps themselves in to avoid becoming hurt. The surface of a character runs deep, and exploring the reasons he looks, moves, and sounds the way he does can reveal much about his inner workings. The mask goes way beyond how he looks and acts, although those specifics are a part of the surface. To go deeper, think of the surface from the character’s point of view. The façade is what he shows to the world, wants others in the story to think of him, how he wants to be perceived. And importantly, the mask is the key to what he is hiding deep inside and why. This gives the reader clues on what makes a character tick beneath the surface.

In the series The Wheel of Time Robert Jordan’s lead character learns early on to hide his emotions using a technique called ‘The Flame and the Void’. Instead of using his emotions to help him, he becomes hard and strong but also brittle. The turmoil he feels is buried deep within him he will not allow anyone to see how scared and pressured he feels. The more challenges he faces the colder he becomes, detaching himself from everything. We know he’s terrified because his internal narrative tells us this, but those around him see an arrogant man who fights everything and everyone. Almost. Sometimes he does let his true feelings show, and those moments are not only surprising and emotional, but because we know he’s frightened, seeing him trying to protect those he loves is believable and for this character it rings true.

In the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay it’s fun to read along and watch the lead character take extensive steps to mimic normal emotional behavior while the reader knows he’s a sociopath and has none of the reactions he depicts. The reader knows what is going on inside him, but the other characters in the book are completely fooled.

So how do you develop the façade for your characters?

Step One: Dig into your character and discover the mask he or she shows the world .

How do they see the world and their relationship to it?

Are internal defenses built up in response to this?

How would they like to be seen be seen in the world?

What does s/he let the world see? How does this work?

How do others see these traits?

Step Two: 
Figure out the specific traits your character will exhibit. From the character’s belief (internal fear) you can then develop how the character copes with the fear and what defense and mask he constructs. Next, list out what others see as a result of this defense mechanism and you will have traits stemming from the defense of the character’s fear.

Character Belief: (internal fear) Defense/Strength: (how character copes and masks this fear) Traits: (how it manifests–what others see) One other way is to explore the character through another’s viewpoint. great way to Each character will bring a different perception and see different things.

Going back to our example in The Wheel of Time , Demandred (an enemy) sees Rand the Dragon reborn or (Lewis Therin Teleamon in a previous life) as someone who was inferior and lucky. Someone who stole all his praise and gained unwarranted attention stealing it away from himself. Lanfear a fellow dreadlord is in love with and sees him as innocent and beguiling. But also someone with immense power that can be manipulated. Cadsuane sees Rand as an impulsive, immature hot-head with too much power and not enough restraint, someone who needs to learn manners. Whilst Aviendha sees Rand as a foolish man who holds his duty high above other things, who will sacrifice everything including himself to save the world from the Dark One.

Whether or not you write from a specific character’s POV, this is a great exercise to bring clarity to motivations and actions that will ring true in the characters surrounding your lead or protagonist. Starting with the surface of the character will give you insights into what is truly inside h/she and how other characters view them. The more of the surface you understand, the deeper you can go to develop your character. A truly memorable character,  skilfully created and developed will stay with the reader and live on after the series has ended.

Neil Sehmbhy is an author from the Midlands. An avid lover of cheese toasties and all things fantasy. Author of The Corporation trilogy, Jinx and the Sunder Chronicles. Follow him on twitter @neilsehmbhy.

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