When Characters Reveal Their Secrets

surprise-boycreativecFor readers, the big payoff moment is when a character reveals her deepest darkest secret. In a romance novel, it frequently occurs as the characters are about to become intimate for first time, whether that’s a kiss, or sex. It’s can also serve as a precursor to the pivotal plot shift when the character believes all is lost, the so-called dark moment.
Ever wondered where those secrets come from? I once thought that authors knew them going in, so that everything the character said or did right from the start, served as a lead-up to the Big Reveal.
Maybe some writers, but definitely not me.
As a beginning writer, I read books and articles in which the authors described how characters revealed things the author didn’t know. That always sounded completely bizarre. I mean, the author makes the character up, right?  How could the character reveal things to the author she didn’t already know?
Trust me, it happens. And it is very weird. And pretty cool.
In my career as an author, it’s happened twice involving a major character. Both times, it was during second draft.
My first draft is when I’m concerned with getting the story down on paper. It’s the plot draft, and the characters can sometimes feel like pieces on a chessboard, moving from one event to the next. Goals are usually clear, but motivations are sketchy.
It’s at second draft when I start to get under my characters’ skin and discover what makes them tick. It’s the time I really think about why they do the things they do to move the story forward.
Strangely, the answers are already built into the characters themselves.
Well duh, says the skeptic. You created them. Didn’t you know this stuff already? One might think so, but the truth is, I didn’t.
I often joke that the first draft of “Pairing Off” read like “Steel Magnolias Visit the USSR.” My heroine was a cute, sassy Southern belle figure skater who becomes a fish out water when she moves to Russia. It was full of broad characters, plenty of humor and heat, but no heart. A big problem was Carrie’s family. No matter what I did, I couldn’t find the right tone for these characters.
Then one night, while chopping veggies for dinner, I knew exactly what had happened to Carrie’s mother. With that knowledge, so many other plotting and character issues fell into place. Carrie’s mother’s story wasn’t cute, broad or funny. I hadn’t planned to introduce such dark elements into the book. But when I struggled to find the heart of the story, Carrie’s actions and character revealed it. Even her name took on eerie significance.
This morning, Vladimir Shustov, the hero of my work in progress, did the same thing, revealing an aspect of his character that’s been there all along, just below the surface. As with Carrie’s reveal, I’m giving Vlad’s some time to gel before I run with it, but after a day of mulling, it feels right. It’s dark and I didn’t plan for it. But Vlad told me his secret, and because he did, I feel him on a deeper level. He’s become a more intriguing character, and his love for Hannah, all that more moving.
For me, this is the magical, mystery tour of writing, when all those threads woven into the story begin to point in unexpected directions that oddly, make perfect sense. Stephen King compares the process to digging up fossils. You keep chipping away at the surface dirt as more of…something is revealed. You don’t always know what it is at first, but as you keep digging and looking at it from different angles, what’s there is amazing. And totally unexpected.

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