I’m on my way to Portland today – going to teach at Chip MacGregor’s Master Seminar on How to Write Best-selling Fiction.
So, I’m sitting on a plane.
Next to people.
They may talk to me.
The thing is…sometimes they tell me more than I need to know. Have you ever been on a plane where the seatmate begins to talk to you…and suddenly they are going into their life history, and their recent divorce, and their children’s problems, and the house she’s trying to sell and how she’s on her way to visit their mother who has shingles and….
So, already, I know way too much about her.
This is why you want to reveal your character slowly, layer by layer. You don’t want the reader to put in their earbuds and turn to the window in the fetal position.
We have the components to his backstory. Now let’s clothe him in his layers, then begin to reveal them:
Layer One: His Attire: (which reveals his Identity) mannerisms, clothing, public goals
Going back to the question about his identity, we’re going to build an initial impression of our character, the one he gives off to our heroine, and our reader. There will probably be inaccuracies, just as real impressions are, but underneath the exterior, we want to glimpse his essential identity.
I am going to use excerpts from a book I wrote a few years ago: Escape to Morning. The hero is an undercover Homeland Security agent who is posing as a reporter. But Will’s essential identity is protector. He is from South Dakota, so we’ll dress him like a cowboy, and he’s pretending to be a reporter, so he’ll have some of those curious attributes as well. His goal is to get our heroine, Dannette, to trust him. Later on, she’ll realize that he lied to her about his identity, but he can’t totally divest himself of who he is, and we see this in the first layer:
Here’s a scene where I reveal Will’s first layer:
He did look sorry. She read it in his furrowed dark eyebrows, the grim slash of his mouth under his dark goatee, even the concern pulsing from his way-too brown eyes. The fury she felt dissipated from her muscles, leaving only relief. “I’m okay. And so is Missy.”
He supported her arm as she rose.
Dannette had always been a tall person, able to look most men in the eye. But this near-killer stood a nose over her, and in his rumpled leather jacket, faded jeans and cowboy boots, he emanated a quiet, unobtrusive power. Maybe it was the way he held himself, feet planted, his head slightly angled in concern. She felt his gaze run over her, and it wasn’t at all invasive. “I didn’t see her. It’s a good thing you yelled.” He said it without defense, with sincerity.
Later she says:
Oh, a cop. No wonder he radiated this you’re-okay-now-ma’am aura. Funny, with him standing a foot away from her, she sorta felt that way. Okay, now. All he needed was a badge and maybe a beat-up Stetson to complete his old-west-hero guise.
See how Will’s identity as a protector shines through?
Once we’ve established that first layer, we’re ready to move on to our second layer.
Layer Two: His Behavior (which reveals Character/Values/Competence): This layer reveals how he treats people, his habits (which also reveal values), his reactions to stress (which reveal past hurts and his essential character).
Our character’s values and Noble Cause will begin to surface, even at the beginning, in small things, like when Will nearly kills my heroine’s dog in the beginning, he takes her out for a meal. Yes, he’s after information, but she’s just come off a search and looked hungry and tired, and he wants to help her. It’s that protector coming out in him.
Think about your own life – what do you do every day that reveals who you are? How do you react to stress? What are your habits? These are the things you’re looking for when you’re thinking about revealing your character in this layer.
This scene is from the hero’s Point of View (POV) and the first part is his protector instincts coming out. Then it’s a hint at his dark past, revealed through his habits and how he reacts to others.
Will rose and walked over to the far end of the room where, in a stone fireplace, a meager blaze sputtered, gasping for life. He took a poker, moved the ash-covered logs around, added another. He replaced the poker and grabbed a napkin from another table, and wiped his hands.
The woman said nothing, still cocooned in fatigue . . . or thought? as she twirled her fork.
“So, I never did get your name,” Will said, returning to the table and squelching the urge to take the fork out of her hand. Tension laced the gesture and he felt the errant and weird urge to help her unwind. He’d been on the dark end of body recovery a few times and knew that only time erased those images, if at all.
And, the key is, for a romance, for the heroine to notice.
But, you also want the heroine to see it:
Obviously she hadn’t totally run Cowpoke Masterson out of her head. And, if she were to be honest, he wasn’t totally disgusting. Not with his devastatingly sweet smile. The way he helped her rub down Missy and settle her in the pickup had charmed his way too far into the soft spaces of her heart. She could hear the cowboy in his words, a soft western twang that spoke of broad skies, lazy days, slow laughter, and sardonic humor.
In Will’s POV, we dropped a breadcrumb about his past to reader, but we focused on his reaction to others in delivering that breadcrumb. Then, in Dannette’s POV, we showed that he is essentially a gentleman. The idea is that we want to hint that there is more underneath that cowboy persona . . . through the eyes of both the characters.
And remember, we’re also trying to unlayer our character for the reader. Often these two layers are revealed during Act One of the emotional journey.
Once his second layer is revealed through his habits and reactions to others, then you are ready for the third layer.
Layer Three: His Choices (which reveal purpose/Noble Cause): This layer reveals his external struggles regarding plot, his greatest dreams and why he thinks he’ll never find them, his obstacles to love.
In every chapter, your character should have a conflict or dilemma he has to solve. As you are facing those, you hint more and more at why his past and his Noble Cause determine those choices. You also want to reveal their greatest dreams. In this layer, you’ll also reveal his competence, or the things he does well.
For example, after Will lies to Dannette (Dani), we don’t want to hate him for his crimes, we need to hint at what his Noble Cause is that made him lie to her:
Will breathed deeply, suddenly missing the smell of prairie grass, the low of cattle as they roamed wide fields. How many times had he sprawled under the sky with Lew, hands behind his head, dreaming of their futures? Lew’s always included Bonnie, and Will had endured painfully many torturous soliloquies of love and longing from his best friend.
Still, Lew had something that Will envied. Still envied. Honesty. A relationship with a woman that went beyond expectations. Bonnie had believed in Lew, had let him free to serve his country, knowing that Lew’s heart stayed at home. Bonnie’s love had given Lew a strength that Will still couldn’t understand. Or maybe that strength came from something more.
Will put his hand to his chest, as if pushing away the burn inside. Memories of Lew always seemed to stir up the longings and attune Will to the vacancies in his life.
See, now we know that there is something noble that Will wants—a home, a wife, a family . . .
Another technique to reveal this layer (besides narrative) is through dialogue. Letting the hero and heroine tell each other things about themselves—either deliberately or not—allows the other characters (and the reader) to know more about them. As their relationship deepens, it’ll be harder and harder for him to hide behind his layers until he finally discards them, one by one.
Layer three is the longest layer to discard, so take your time, letting out information bit by bit. Have him share his greatest dreams with the heroine in one scene, and show your reader his Noble Cause through his actions. You may even want to have a conversation with a friend about the obstacles in his way to happiness.
Eventually, your character will have to reveal Layer Four: His In-security: His internal struggles, greatest dreams and fears, how he feels about love, his spiritual vacancies.
And this is revealed in two stages:
Stage one: His In-security is revealed through his out-of-character behavior.
In this phase of layering, you want to continue to put him into situations that confront his fears, force him to reveal his dreams to the heroine or to the reader, almost like turning the crank on a vice to make him open up.
One of my favorite scenes in Escape to Morning is when Will sees that Dani is headed for trouble—and again he has to choose between his mission and her safety. But he so desperately wants something between them, he can see that dream dangling right there before him . . . so he intercepts her, and blows his cover.
“Dani, it’s okay,” Will said, trying to keep his voice low, scanning his gaze past her, toward the cabin, past it into the dark fold of forest.
“What part of you scaring my skin off is okay?” Her voice shrilled, matching the white panic that hued her face. “And why do you have to always dress like a mercenary when you’re in the woods? Good grief, Will, who do you think you’re going to get in a fight with, a great horned owl?”
He couldn’t hide the smile, nor it seemed, his emotions. He’d seen her sneak up, and totally turned off the common sense screaming in his brain.
No, he’d been propelled by sheer panic.
But the fact that Little Miss SAR was back, and obviously fully charged, meant trouble.
And even more dangerous were the little feelings of happiness that were exploding all over his heart.
“Dani, please, for the last time, you need to leave.”
“Give me one good reason.” She held up one elegant finger. “One.”
He made a face, opened his mouth. Okay, she had a point . . . without knowing it. He couldn’t rightly explain without blowing his cover. But without blowing his cover, he couldn’t get her to leave.
Besides, what if she were caught hiking out?
“Promise to listen to me? And, to obey me if I tell you to do something?”
She looked at him like he’d turned purple and spoken Russian.
“I know the words, ‘You’re not the boss of me,’ sound slightly kindergartenish . . . but, you’re not the boss of me.”
This time he really did stop her. Put all one-hundred-ninety pounds between her and her exit, and wore a face he hadn’t used for quite some time. “You’re not going anywhere without me, Dani,” he said, slow and dangerously. “And I am the boss of you, starting right now.”
Her eyes opened, and she backed away, tilted her head. “Now you’re really freaking me out.”
“Good. Please, take me very seriously. I know things you don’t, and just suffice to say that they are part of my job. So, when I say things like, go home, which I realize you won’t, trust that they are for your own good. Because I am your friend.”
She swallowed, and suddenly he realized that no, he didn’t want to be her friend. Not at all. In fact, he’d spent the entire morning lying when he told himself that it felt great to be trusted, that the feelings of honor she dredged up were enough.
He wanted more. Now that he’d gotten a taste of what it meant to be around her smile, her laughter, even her confused anger, he wanted more.
Stage Two: His In-security is revealed through the Sacrificial Act.
Remember when we asked, what would your character never do? This layer is revealed when he does it.
This layer is Mr. Darcy’s desperation, it’s Hugh Grant in Notting Hill posing a question at the press conference. It’s Jason Bourne saying goodbye to the woman he loves so he can be with her, later, whole.
Layers Three and Four usually encompass all of Act Two of the emotional journey. Take your time with them, don’t bunch them into big revealing scenes, but drop them like tidbits to entice your reader on the journey.
For Will, he has to sacrifice his secrecy:
Which brings us to the final layer, the layer in which we see our hero completely vulnerable . . . “naked” as it were.
Layer Five: His Spiritual Lie and the discovery of the truth.
This layer happens when the Black Moment hits, when he realizes all his worst fears have come true. It’s the beginning of Act Three in the Emotional Journey. You want to make him face the lie, and then be changed by the truth.
Here is Will’s final layer: Dani is injured in the woods, but the clock is ticking on a terrorist attack, and he has the information to stop it, so he must leave her there, praying someone will come and rescue her, while he takes the information (and a girl named Amina) to safety:
Those two words fueled every step, but pinged louder in Will’s heart as he trudged away with Amina, feeling nearly nauseous. Fear pressed down on his chest and he struggled for breath.
How could he leave her? He forced his breath through the web of pain and stared at the stars. The moon hung as a fingernail in the sky, pointing north. Please, oh God, be our portion tonight. Never did he long for those words to be true. Never did he need God more than this moment, when he’d left the best of all he wanted to be laying cocooned in his jacket under a black pine tree.
All of Will’s layers are gone. He’s figuratively naked, vulnerable. He’s desperate, he’s in love, he needs God . . . and we’re rooting for him because he’s completely captured our heart and we feel his pain.
But . . . what about prologues that reveal the dark moment of a character? Isn’t that revealing a layer too soon?
I am a believer that prologues shouldn’t be used unless they contribute to the mystery of the story. If the reader understands the character’s darkest moment before they’re ready, then it’s cheating their emotional journey. The exceptions I would make are if a great deal of time passes, and if the emotional impact of the journey is beyond that moment.
A great example is a Deb Raney book (In the Still of the Night) that shows the brutal rape of a character at the beginning of the book. However, while this is a dark moment, the real reveal is when they discover the identity of the rapist. This information is kept until the right reveal of that layer.
By the end of the book, you should have wooed your reader into falling in love with your characters…the way a great romance does!
If you have any questions, stop by Club MBT Voices! And don’t forget Monday night’s chat — we’ll be talking about crafting the BLACK MOMENT!
Have a great weekend!