So it’s Halloween. I thought I’d make today’s post reflect that. When you think about Halloween what’s one of the main things that makes it so exciting? What does everybody love to do? Dress up. It’s a time to wear costumes and masks that can either hide you or reveal more about you. It’s a time to step outside of yourself a little, try something new or out of the ordinary, and show your true colors. Maybe your friends will see you in costume and find out something new about you. Like maybe they didn’t know you like superheroes until you show up decked out in a custom Iron Man suit. Maybe they had no idea you were outgoing enough to show a little skin or maybe you wear something that completely covers you, leaving people only to guess who is behind the fabric and makeup. So let’s take these possibilities and apply it to writing.
Take your characters in your most recent project. And throw away their titles. Hide their personalities. Give them all masks. Now, take your hero and write him doing something awful. Take you villain and write him doing something nice, selfless, or heroic. Don’t over think the fact that the hero shouldn’t be evil or the villain shouldn’t be honorable. That’s why they’re wearing a mask right now. No one has to know.
What did you come up with? The answer, hopefully, is depth. Heroes aren’t perfect. They’re damaged. They can still have a dark side, a reason to make them have purpose. Villains don’t start out evil. They aren’t incapable of heroic qualities. Maybe you wrote your hero committing a murder as gruesome as something the villain would do. Now ask yourself why. How can that act tell us something about him? Did he do it in self-defense or to save another life? Was he hesitant? Did he shed a tear or apologize before delivering the killing blow? These things show his true colors.
What about the villain? Did you write him sparing the life of someone? Did he go out of his way to help another? Maybe it ties back to his own tragedies. Maybe he spared the life of a child because he lost his. Maybe he helped a woman feed her family because he grew up on the streets.
By making your characters do things unexpected or out of the box, you give them depth. You strengthen their back-story, show their emotional side, and give them a cause for their actions. The point is that characters, just like people, aren’t one-dimensional. They have things that drive them, good and bad sides, and pasts just like we do. These things shape them and turn them toward the hero or villain side. By showing the good in the villain we can sympathize with him and understand him a little more even if we still hate him at the end. By showing the bad in the hero we can realize he isn’t perfect. It shows he’s trying, but he still has a lot to learn. He still needs to grow. That’s what your plot and character arc will tackle.
So take the masks off and apply what you discovered. See your characters for something more than they are right now. Everyone loves mystery. Your characters may be hidden or shrouded in obscurity and questions at first, but they can’t stay that way. Readers need to know why someone acts the way they do and what drives them to be who they are. They’re good or bad for a reason. So let them hide for a while and then start pulling pieces of their costumes away and reveal what’s really underneath.
Writing in a Comfort Zone
Writers tend to box themselves in. They write in one genre or style exclusively and forget about all the other possibilities out there. I’m a perfect example of that. I write so much contemporary YA I don’t even know if I’d be good at anything else even though I do have other interests. In honor of Halloween pushing you toward things unusual and abnormal for a night, maybe you should do the same with a writing session.
When you sit down at your computer next, try something new. Maybe you’re like me. My day to day writing outfit is Young Adult. But maybe tonight I should slip into another outfit. Maybe my costume will be a different genre. I’ll hide behind Fantasy tonight and see where that leads me. You can try the same. If you’re a non-fiction article writer, try your hand at fiction. If you’re a journalist, brainstorm that novel idea you’ve been holding back on. If you’re a Fantasy writer, try a contemporary story in the real world. If you’ve never read Young Adult, get your thoughts in the mind of a teenager and let them take off.
Branch out. Be someone else tonight. Discover the possibilities, and if it doesn’t work out you can take the costume off tomorrow.
Do you box yourself in when you write or do you write in many forms and genres? What do you wish you could write that you’ve never tried before? Do your characters have depth and progress believably? Share and post in the comments! And Happy Halloween!