After twenty-some years of making up imaginary people I’ve noticed a trend in my work. That I am partial to secrets is perhaps a given in a mystery writer. Secrets, hidden facts, and unknowns from the past make up the plots of most mysteries. But I’ve also noticed that I like a good secret identity. A secret self.
The Self: what is it exactly? Part nature, part nurture, a combination of the the blending of genetic material and the loving (or not) people who care for you as you grow. Before a person has children they often think whimsically about how they will bring up their children *just so,* avoiding all the perceived mistakes of their own childhoods. After their baby is born a new thought pops vividly into play: “This child has his own ideas!”
So it is with characters. Bringing a fictional person to life on the page takes a strong will, persistence, and luck, combined with the raw talent with words and feelings that make a writer tick. Yes, feelings. A writer must have a well of emotion that isn’t far from the surface. The so-called Self of fiction is both the person the character presents to the other characters and the emotional life she often hides from them. That this hidden Self holds secrets about her identity that she doesn’t want anyone to know is just human nature. There are parts of each of us, our innermost Self, that we guard with every fiber of our being. Things that make us ashamed, emotions we aren’t proud of, our jealousies, our envies, our weaknesses we hope desperately nobody has noticed. Just like real people characters hide the real core of themselves. But as writers we have to know that core, to understand the way people trick themselves and manipulate others, to just plain “get” human nature in all its sometime weirdness.
In my latest novel, Gillian Sargent has hidden her past quite well, and with good reason. But when she disappears the Bennett Sisters, lawyers and sleuths, must dig deep to find her before something bad happens to her. This involves outing her real identity, whether she likes it or not. For much of the book she is a cypher: The Girl in the Empty Dress, all external perception but nothing inside. This is the way we perceive most people we don’t know well — which is of course most people. Most people wouldn’t try so hard to hide their past though, unless there was something really juicy to hide. Does that apply to Gillian Sargent? But of course.
The theme of the secret identity is also a big part of PLAN X, my Rory Tate thriller from 2013. A professor of Shakespeare is badly burned in a bomb blast in a college lab. The heroine, Cody Byrne, a policewoman, is tasked with finding his next of kin who appear to be nonexistent. Unwilling to let go of the case that may help her get past her PTSD from an Iraq tour, Cody embarks on an unauthorized journey to find out his real identity. Along the way she finds out more about her own self. This is something that fiction does better than real life: make connections and parallels that make the world make sense, if only for a moment. Real life is much more random. It’s cruel and its timing sucks.
Writing fiction is about writing characters. Yes, you have to know how to plot but it’s your characters and their secret selves that carry your story. It’s the difference between the outer story (the events that happen to and by characters) and the inner story (the emotional journey your main character is on). The inner story resonates much deeper with readers even as they hang on the suspenseful events of the plot.
Ying and yang. Plot and characters. The outer shell and the real Self: you can’t have one without the other.