Peggy Bechko: Writers Revealing What Characters Don’t Want To Show

secrets

by Peggy Bechko

Oh, come on, you know your characters are just like you. They say one thing and think something else entirely, try to conceal you’re really doing that – and then give it all away with a flick of an eye, a gesture or some muted (or otherwise) sound you make. Yep, that’s reality. Us humans evade, lie and maneuver (just for starters). We do it to protect ourselves, to protect others, out of embarrassment or an assortment of other reasons.

Now, knowing this it becomes a challenge for the writer. In a script for a movie the writer sets the scene, the mood, tweaks details to make things clear and then actors take over to do the subtle little things that portray what’s in the script, the character’s inner monolog.

For novel writers it’s a different kind of challenge.

The writer is dealing with characters who might be suppressing emotion, hiding them from outsiders as well as themselves. And the writer has to telegraph to the reader this is going on. So, just as we telegraph in real life, whether we intend to or not, the character can do the same in the novel. He or she can have something as obvious as a ‘tick’ of the eye when lying, or something as subtle as a lift of the chin. There can be a high-pitched laugh, the recognizable smell of sweat on the air or maybe hands that fiddle with a pencil or each other, or words that come out in a flood when the character normally speaks in a more reserved fashion.

All of these little signals (and oh so many more) telegraph through tension the movement of the story forward; they build up expectation for the reader and empathy from the reader for the struggling characters.

There are so many things that give us and the characters in a novel or movie away, things that let the watcher (or reader) know all is not as it should be.

As writers we need to remember how us human beings work, tap into our own experience. Remember smiling when you didn’t mean it, that stillness that settled over you when you were embarrassed or cornered, making excuses to leave a situation, using gestures that cancel each other out like telling someone no, but then stepping forward and reaching toward them, or the opposite, yes, then stepping away.  Can you recall avoiding eye contact or just flat out ignoring someone? Have you felt your chest tighten as you withdrew from a conversation or literally left a group of people.

All that and more you can attribute to your characters when writing. They are human. You created them. Fortunately for you, as the writer of a novel, if you’re writing the Point Of View character you can let the reader know something of the thoughts going through his or her head. The character can ‘act normal’ while all sorts of thoughts and intentions race through the character’s mind. And it’s a good idea to spice the novel with just such information.

However, to breathe intense life into the writing, you, as the writer, don’t want to depend on that little cheat exclusively. Seeing what’s going on and reaction to it is much more fulfilling and draws the reader or viewer much more deeply into the story.

So do a little people watching. Add to your repertoire, hone your writing skills and let the readers see just how writingly human you make your characters.