The Big Reveal: How Characters Show Us What They're Made Of

Our original Monday Muse, Donna Cooner, is on medical leave until October 7th. Our Saturday Muse, Lia Keyes, will cover Mondays until she returns.

For the next two weeks we'll be exploring the topic "Character: Show Us What You're Made Of." In this post, Lia Keyes delves into characters' pasts to discover the secret to creating series-worthy characters.

I've been thinking a lot about character as I prepare my first novel for submission.

I'd love to have the opportunity to write more than one story set in this novel's world, but for that to happen readers are going to have to want to spend a lot of time with my characters; to find them interesting enough to want to revisit them, time and time again, even missing their company between books.

So how can I pull that off?

Some fictional characters fascinate, haunting us for a lifetime. They may not even be particularly likable, yet they nevertheless have remarkable staying power in our minds and hearts.

People show us what they're made of by the way they react to adversity or success, to the needs of friends and family or work, the choices they make, the clothes they wear, or the way they choose to live; but the foundation and motivation for all these expressions of personality can be found in their pasts. In this way, everyone can be seen as a 'production of time.' The older they are, the more true this becomes.

In my view, this is why a fictional character who acts against the logic of his past will always fail to convince, never fully taking on a life of his own; because it is a character's reaction to the grievances and triumphs of his past that makes him unique, even fascinating, no matter how mundane his life may appear to be on the surface.

If, in the real world, there is no such thing as a normal person, why should fictional characters be any less multi-faceted? Why not imbue them with memorable, quirky, unique perspectives on life, born of complex pasts, whether they be bakers or kings?

It's when chaos or disruption occurs in a 'normal' life that we become involved and start to care about the character, captivated by the changes wrought during the passage of time.

Not every detail of a character's past needs to be on the page, however. As long as they exist in the writer's mind, they will inform the story choices made.

There's also something to be said for holding back some motivational detail from a character's past.

A first act bloated with heavy exposition and backstory is a wasted opportunity. How much more powerful is the impact of a deliciously dramatic late reveal, one that 'changes everything' when it finally comes to light, sending your mind whirling back through the story to find the carefully planted seeds that you missed?

In fine art, the negative space between objects is sometimes more powerful than the object itself. In the same way, not revealing too much of a person's past gives them a mystique they wouldn't possess if all was explained.

While we know little about Sherlock Holmes' past, we do know he was based on a real person, Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor who Conan Doyle studied under as an impressionable seventeen-year-old at Edinburgh University; and, even though Conan Doyle was probably not privy to many details of his mentor's past, his study of the man himself, the end result of that past, lent veracity to his portrayal of Holmes.

Part of our fascination with Holmes is that we don't know everything about his past. What was he like as a boy? Who taught him to play the violin? How did he become addicted to stimulation, by whatever means necessary? Wouldn't you love to know how he came to be?

Characters whose lives are completely driven by their pasts include Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, whose unhinged depravity and cruelty was born of the cruelty dealt him in childhood; Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, whose desire to be free of Gormenghast Castle, where he grew up, becomes overwhelming; and Will Shakespeare's Hamlet, whose desire to be a free-thinking humanist is in constant conflict with his vow to avenge his father's death.

And what about Severus Snape? Is the gradual, strategic reveal of his past through the length of the seven-book Harry Potter series the secret to creating an enduringly fascinating character, one who will live beyond the confines of a single book?
Now I'd like to turn this over to you, and ask which characters you find eternally fascinating, and why?

Milady de Winter from The Three Musketeers is a favourite of mine. The reveal that she is Athos' estranged and embittered wife (along with the reveal of the origin and significance of the tattoo on her shoulder) still gives me the shivers!


"A first act bloated with heavy exposition and backstory is a wasted opportunity. How much more powerful is the impact of a deliciously dramatic late reveal, one that 'changes everything' when it finally comes to light, sending your mind whirling back through the story to find the carefully planted seeds that you missed?" You hit the nail on the head for me, Lia. It is so much more rewarding, I think, for reader AND writer, to uncover the "why?" of a character as the story progresses. Might be a bit more messy for the writer to fashion a character this way, but it can also lift the story to a new and powerful level. Thanks for a great post!

Great post, Lia. You've got me thinking about my WIP and how I can create a "deliciously dramatic late reveal."

Lia, I read this & didn't have a ready comment, so I got to work on my WIP. In recent feedback someone asked what my main character's "soft spot" is. With your post in mind I created a backstory I hadn't even thought of exploring before & am newly energized. Thank you!

Glad you found a useful nugget there, Robin! I wrote it late at night, at rambled a bit, but, yeah, I do love a good reveal! :)

Hurray! That's so good to know, Beth! Go for it!

You tease. Now I'm going to spend all day wondering what it is.

I love discovering what makes the character tick. Oftentimes, this doesn't come to me until late in the story, or even late in the revision process, but once that key event/need/desire comes to me, everything falls into place. And, as you said, it doesn't all need to come out on the page, so long as I know what motivates the character's action and can layer enough hints that something larger is at work.

Absolutely! You can always go back and plant the seeds after the first draft, which I prefer to think of as "the discovery draft" or "zero draft" so I don't get my knickers in a twist trying to be perfect from the start. :)

Edmond Dantes is one of my favorites. Definitely a man with a past.
I'm off to plant some seeds in my WIP :).

Oh, yes, good one, Kristen! The Count of Monte Cristo! Yeah, baby.

Lovely post, and timely. Won't say why yet but if you had seen the sharknado that hurtled through my brain yesterday, you'd know. So, I say, nodding my head in agreement, "the late reveal is da bomb." xxxs

I love your comparison to negative space in art. It's true that what you don't know is as interesting as what you do know, and it forms part of your picture of a character.

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