Crafting Rich Characters (Part 4)

Greetings Storytellers! We’re off to Part 4 of Crafting Rich Characters. In Part 1, we explored a character’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and quirks. In Part 2, we covered Attributes and Traits, Skills and Abilities, and Occupations and Interests. And in Part 3, we looked at the Formative Backstory, Core Values, and The Lie.

In this post, we’re going to explore some of my favorite parts of character building: Secrets, The Big Fear, and The Mask. We’ll look at the juicy parts of the characters that create tension, obstacles, and perhaps some mystery.


All images from Pixabay

Now things get a little interesting. Where The Lie (Part 3) covered information the character doesn’t know, now we’re talking about things the character knows and doesn’t want anyone else to find out.

Secrets are secrets for a reason; they involve risk. Some secrets are small – the “homemade” pie in the oven is store-bought (one of my secrets!). Some are big, where discovery would threaten the character on a core level.

It follows that secrets impact a character’s attitudes and behaviors. Secrets affect choices. They add interest to the story because they can create tension or mystery in interpersonal dynamics as well as the plot.

Secrets are best when contextual and relevant to the plot. My store-bought-pie secret is more of a quirk unless I make a living selling homemade pies! That your character shops at thrift stores isn’t a problem unless the character doesn’t want her new friends to know she’s struggling financially.

Big secrets = Big stakes = Big tension in your story.

Some examples of secrets:

The character killed someone (accidentally or otherwise), embezzled from his employer, lost her wedding ring, has an addiction or an affair, lied about where he spent the weekend, has a banned magical talent, stole from his best friend, hid evidence, etc.

Secrets don’t have to be related to a particular action or event either. They may arise from childhood experiences in the backstory or from core values. Characters might hide what they perceive as flaws: poor self-esteem, depression, abuse (as perpetrator or victim), failure to achieve success, lack of a skill, shyness.

What is the character’s secret that no one else knows? Pick one, even if all it does is add a layer to the character’s personality (like my fake homemade pies).

The Big Fear

The Big Fear is related to secrets, but unlike my pie-fib, this is the one that terrifies – betrayal, loss of control, inability to protect loved ones, failure, death, loneliness, abandonment, poverty, aging, disgrace. It’s the fear that could bring one’s life crashing down.

It may reside in the conscious mind and be part of the character’s physical reality, such as being caught for a crime and losing everything she holds dear. Or it might drift in the subconscious mind, such as a fear of abandonment (because a parent disappeared when the character was a child). Big Fears are often rooted in early experiences, in which case the formative backstory comes into play.

Fear may drive the character’s goal – he must find out who really murdered his best friend before he takes the fall for the crime. Or it can be an obstacle she must overcome – she has to deal with a painful betrayal of love in order to love again.

This is another one where the higher the stakes, the bigger the tension.

Here are some questions for exploring a character’s Big Fear:

  • What fear is caused by the overall plot problem?
  • What past traumas might affect current behavior?
  • What are they irrationally afraid of?
  • What are they secretly afraid of?
  • What fears draw on internal conflicts?

The Mask

Ah, the mask. A character’s mask is directly related to his Big Fear. The mask describes how a character compensates or hides his fear from the world. For example, a character fearful of betrayal may act overly independent or refuse to get close to others. A character with a fear of failure may be a workaholic, or he may never take risks at all.

Masks are often deeply rooted. Rarely will a workaholic consider that he might have a fear of failure, or acknowledge a belief that he’s unlovable unless he provides an income. A child’s experience of parental divorce may lead to an adult fear of abandonment and a mask that includes controlling or fixing everyone around them.

Often the mask comes undone or must be discarded when circumstances force characters to face and perhaps overcome their fears. A character must abandon his false bravado when forced to be truly brave. He must get over his fear of failure and mask of hyper-competence to solve a problem with others. She must let her children grow up and make their own decisions. He can no longer hide his magic power if he wants to save his friends from the evil wizard!

That concludes Part 4.

Now that we’ve covered aspects of the character that we can’t observe, what’s planned for Part 5? We’re heading into the final stretch – Character Motivations and Goals. And I’ll also provide you with a summary worksheet with prompts for creating your characters.

Happy Writing!

156 thoughts on “Crafting Rich Characters (Part 4)

  1. Thanks for another great segment, Diana. I finally got a chance to go back and digest this. Keeping my eye on the prize, it was fun to apply these tips and ideas to Miss Livingstone’s character that’s already been built. I can definitely see how each of these concepts has motivated her character, shaped tension and infused depth into the story. I often talk about (and sometimes bemoan while writing) the complexity of the plot in Miss Liv Adventures, but you helped me realize that Miss Liv is quite complex on an interior level as well. So important! Thanks again! -KJQ

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series of posts, Sheri. Yes, Miss Liv is a wonderful character with a lot of depth. It is kind of fun to go back and see to what extent we applied this stuff to our existing characters, what was important as well as what was inconsequential. Thanks for the visit and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Especially for a mostly Pantser, it’s reassuring to see these important elements end up making it into the books. I don’t generally do character bio pages, but I definitely ‘know them’ well. For some reason they’ve always come to me fully formed – not to say I don’t add things in along the way as they encounter new characters or events. Another important thing, of course, is how all of the basic traits you’ve talked about here interact with the plot, and – as you point out – the dilemmas and changes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, pantsers are a mystery to me, Sheri. Lol. But hey, whatever works and gets us there. It’s one of the things I love about chatting with writers – learning how different (and fascinating) they are. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow – this series is wonderful – I need to get caught up on the posts (and just saw five came out)
    What a great idea for a series and it really offers so much for readers to take away – ⭐️😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 5) | Story Empire

  4. Here again, Diana, you certainly practice what you preach. I can identify these points throughout your books. And yet they don’t draw attention to themselves (which is the real trick, isn’t it: to include the “big” stuff in such a natural way that it doesn’t cause the author to loom large instead of serving to naturally portray a real character in process?).

    It also occurs to me as I read your post here that, often, these “points” aren’t separate from one another (from across all of your four parts to this post series). A character may at once have a Big Lie, a Secret and Big Fear that are intertwined and which culminate in new understandings. For instance, maybe the Big Fear and the Secret are based in faulty understanding based in the Big Lie. So when the Big Lie begins to be exposed, the character realizes that the Secret never needed to be kept in the first place. Or perhaps the lifelong fear was based in a lie (the character’s parents didn’t abandon her as she’d always been told, they died protecting her, etc.). And that can all cause both further character development and struggle as a character has to try to come to grips with the new information. (No is just free of a driving internal force because information has been straightened out!)

    Well done! I hope this series will wind up being bookmarked by many as a go-to resource they’ll return to again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for reading, Erik, and for the comment. Oh yes, they’re so interconnected, aren’t they? And they’re like that in real life, of course. As I go through and craft a character, many of the answers to these promps blend together into one paragraph, forming a character’s overall flaw that must be challenged and hopefully overcome during the story. I think its easier to look at them separately as we start thinking about our characters because their secrets, lies, and masks are different ways that our fears manifest, different ways that we protect our egos and identities. All so fascinating.

      And you’re right that truth and information are essential to overcoming them. That’s part of what’s so scary about living in a world where truth and information are purposely withheld. And I’m glad I practice what I preach. I certainly try to! Lol. Thanks for checking our the blog post, my friend. Hugs. ❤ ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 4) – Jackanori, (MPD)

  6. I’ve really enjoyed these posts on character crafting! It has given me perspective on how my own characters have been developed, and now I feel the need to remove them from inside my cranium and build bio sheets for all of them. Personally I prefer things to become exposed organically as I’m putting words to the page, but I really like your insights to the structure of character as an organizational checklist and tool for reference. Looking forward to part 5!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for reading MH and for the great comment. I do this prework before I start writing, and then I sort of let it go when the story begins tapping out on the laptop. I think it’s important, for me anyway, to hand the reins over to the story and let the characters be themselves, even if that means they deviate from who I thought they were! That organic creativity is essential and it’s part of the fun of writing. I’m totally with you on that. I hope you enjoy the final post when it goes live, and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sorry I’m late, Diana, but SO glad I finally was able to get over here to read this. I absolutely love this series, because for me, characters are pretty much everything. When I find I don’t care about the characters in a book I’m ready–or I’m not invested in them–I’m not likely to finish the book, no matter how interesting the plot might be. And when I write, I try to create characters that my readers will care about, too. So I’ve saved every post you’ve written on this to date, and this latest one is my favorite (so far) because it introduces concepts I wasn’t familiar with. I plan to study these in depth to keep me on track with my latest WIP, and I thank you so much for teaching me how to do it all better. Great post, my friend! 😊 ❤ 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the visit, Marcia. Though I believe that every person (and character) is complex and includes all of the elements I’ve talked about in this series, but not all of these aspects will rise to the top as we craft our stories. Some will resonate, enhance the plot and relationships, some will stay deep in the background. You write spectacular characters, so I think you add lots of this without even thinking about it. Fun to comtemplate though, isn’t it? Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aw, thanks for such a nice compliment, Diana. I write them with love, anyway, and cross my fingers that they will pull people in. And I’m learning more and more every day, especially from great writers such as YOU who share their tips and tricks and all sorts of concepts that are new to me. Thanks again! I know I’ll refer to this post many times in the weeks ahead! 😀 ❤


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    • Thanks so much for the kind comment, Pam. I enjoy great worldbuilding and an exciting plot with lots of twists, but if the characters don’t capture my interest, well…. it’s still hard for me really love a book. Thanks for dropping by and I hope you’re busily writing. Have a wonderful Sunday and week ahead. ❤ ❤ ❤


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