If You’re Not Probing Your Characters, You’re Missing Out On Their Secrets

A little while ago I wrote a post about how your characters lie to you. We’re going to do a little follow-up today on the topic of secrets that your characters keep. Last time, we talked about how to have a sit-down grill session with your character; today, we’re going to talk about how to use a minor character (or another main character) to get out of your secretive hero their most closely-held gems of hiding-ness.

Victor, I Know Everything About My Characters, Because I Wrote Them

But precisely for that reason, you are very likely missing out on several key truths hidden in the folds of your characters’ hearts. You are, I am almost certain, in the position of writing your character, and they do this or that dodgy, hide-y type thing (for example, avoiding a particular subject, or performing a task in a peculiar way), and you say to yourself with a chuckle, “Oh, that’s just the way they are because of xyz secret.”

What I’m telling you is that there are more immediate, much more interesting motivations for these character actions that you are probably missing out on. When you probe into these, for lack of a better word, red flags, using another character as your hunting dog, you will discover surprising things about your own characters.

Well, I Still Think You’re Wrong, But Fire Away

Let us take for our example one of our characters from my project about centaurs. (There’s Eueen. I showed her to you a few weeks ago. Isn’t she pretty? I like her.)


Yesterday, Eueen was harassing, with the intent to destroy, an enormous, magical black bull that had begun to pick off baby animals from her ancestral herdlands. Eueen has a little brother, who is a piebald (that means he’s a paint horse with black and white patches). Eueen’s little brother is named Timothy. Yes, yes, I know, where did her crazy name come from? I guess you’ll have to read the book when it comes out to find out about her name.

Now, I, as the author, think I know why Eueen goes after the bull. I think she goes after the bull because she has a generous nature, and gets really angry at injustice and the abuse of smaller creatures. But! Let us probe at her with Timothy as interrogator, and find out if there is a secret hidden underneath this generosity.


Bad Writing (My Ideas):

Eueen stamped her hooves near the massive body of the bull, and wrenched her three arrows from his hide. His body shuddered and pulled to the side when the hooked heads tore free. She wiped away some of the blood on the thick hair of the bull, and replaced her arrows in her quiver. Never again, she thought, would her land be blighted by the tiny carcasses of this great animal’s carnivorous corruption.

Her little brother stood far away, and watched her critically. She didn’t know he was there. His mouth was turned in a frown, and his tail swished back and forth with supreme irritation. He did not confront her, but he determined to tell their father of what his sister had done, and the terrible risk she had taken to rid their land of the evil bull. Eueen trotted away from the bull, and Timothy retreated into the trees.

Good Writing (Probing for Lies):

“You’re lucky you aren’t dead,” Timothy said, watching the flies buzz hurriedly over the massive heap of the dead bull. Eueen stepped on the great shoulders of the black bull, and fixed her grip on the first arrow that penetrated its hide. She made no reply to Timothy, who watched her critically. “You know dad’s going to be mad,” he added.

“Nothing bad happened to me,” Eueen said. She wiped the head of the arrow on the black hide, and pushed it into her quiver.

“Ought to clean that better,” Timothy said. Eueen began on the second arrow. “Did you know he’d come from Craton’s herd?” Timothy asked. Eueen reddened, and her little brother’s ears perked forward. “What have you got against Craton?” Timothy demanded.

“I don’t have anything against Craton,” Eueen said. She pulled free the third arrow, and stepped away from the bull.

Your Probing Didn’t Work, Victor

Oh, I think it did. I thought she was just behaving with generalized altruism; now I know she’s got some shady personal relationship with Craton, who is a coarse and wealthy ne’er-do-well. No one really likes Craton, but he generally keeps to himself. I had no idea before this interlude that Eueen was keeping a secret about this guy. Now I know much more interesting questions to ask; for example, I can probe at her, from a variety of characters, about potential romantic entanglements, blackmail scenarios, and I can even trap her in a corner and find out if she and Craton go to the same bookclub.

Silly Victor, Centaurs Don’t Have Bookclubs!

Hey, they might! I actually mean, they might have a mundane, business- or hobby-related connection, rather than a dark and secret liaison of some kind. I certainly have enough information now to probe in interesting directions later on.

Some General Rules

If your character is doing something for a stated altruistic or wide moral purpose, get very suspicious. If you cannot point to an immediate, personal motivation for an action, probe away. Another general rule is that the action should share some proportion to the intensely personal extent of the motivation. Small personal feelings result in small outer actions; deep injuries or hurts (or loves or desires) result in much bigger actions.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here. Samuel worked in Mario’s Graveyard on a Tuesday, and today is Tuesday, so today is a perfect day to start reading Harder than Rocks.