Peel Back the Mask of Your Protagonist

You think you know your main character so well. You know where she came from, where he went to school, the name of her chosen dagger, and why he never goes to bed before three in the morning. But if you think you know everything there is to know about your character, think again. To write really juicy, complex characters you’ve got to get in there and peel back their masks.

We all wear masks, of course. It’s most noticeable at social events, when we’re trying to make a certain impression on others—friends and strangers alike. But we also wear masks when we’re among our nearest and dearest. And so do our characters. Here are three questions you can use to cut through the mask and get to the good stuff underneath.

How does your character ASSUME that strangers see him or her?

This exercise requires your character to look in at themselves from the outside, while still retaining their own perspective. So for instance, they might not mind the fact that they wear shabby clothes every day, but on another level they’re conscious that strangers probably gather an impression of sloppiness or poverty. It’s this other level that will give insight into why your character chooses to give that particular impression to anyone they pass on the street.

In the example above, the character is hiding behind sloppiness and the assumption of poverty. Maybe they don’t want too much attention, or too much responsibility put on them. It can go the opposite way as well. Maybe your character dresses like a high-powered business person and is very aggressive. They’re hiding behind their aggression and their power stance. Why?

How does your character WANT their object of desire to see him or her?

The way your character acts around the object of their desire is another mask that hides his or her true self. This particular mask is most often used when romantic interest is in the first fledgling stages of attraction. The closer people get—and the more they get to know each other—the greater the likelihood of all masks falling away.

But while the mask is still up it reveals what your character considers to be the ideal; the kind of person they wish they could be in this present moment. So if your character wants their crush to think they’re witty, intelligent and worldly, it’s clear not only that they value those traits, but that they also struggle in this area and question if what they are right now is enough.

How does your character NEED to feel that society sees him or her?

This one is sticky and has as many layers as a croissant. To understand the answer you’ll have to really work into your character’s core and identify his or her most fundamental values. You can start by asking more questions. Does your character want to be accepted by society, or do they feel more comfortable rejected and on the fringes? Do they think of themselves as a pioneer or an institutional pillar? Do they need to be seen as making a difference in the world, or making up their own rules?

Many of these answers will intertwine with the issue of how the character needs to see his or her own self. So for example, if they need society to see them as making a difference it will go hand-in-hand with your character needing to feel that they actually are making a difference. But you might also have an interesting sort of sociopathic character who needs to be seen as a highly successful overachiever, but actually couldn’t care less about achieving anything at all.

Think of your character as a jewel that has about a thousand different facets. If you keep turning them over and exploring new sides, you’ll keep discovering new information about their personality and motivations. And there’s always another way to turn things.

There’s always another side to explore.

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9 Comments

  • Reply Margit Sage 6 February, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Great questions! Simple, but layered. 🙂

  • Reply Robyn LaRue 6 February, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Good tips for getting at the other sides of the characters, thank you. I’m such a multi-faceted personality myself that my characters usually are as well, and I use similar tactics. 🙂

  • Reply Drew 6 February, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I want you to Peel Back the Mask of the Liebster Awards! http://wp.me/p3FJIq-2r

  • Reply Jon 7 February, 2014 at 5:07 am

    Great way of constructing complex characters and keeping them believable. I particularly like the first one, it’s so easy to overlook that aspect. Thanks Lauren.

    By the way, where DO you find the fabulous artwork you use at the start of your posts? They all look too consistent to be random Googlings.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 7 February, 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks Jon! All the artwork on my blog comes from pictures I take with my phone. I walk around all the different neighborhoods and take pictures of the street art I find. Most of it comes from the Mission, the Haight, North Beach, and the Castro, but I find random bits around Golden Gate Park, down by the beach, etc. There is a TON of street art in San Francisco.

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 7 February, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    Great exercises. I’m bookmarking this post. Please don’t change the URL.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 8 February, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Helpful!

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 9 February, 2014 at 5:55 am

    Great advice as ever, Lauren, revealing the truth of the matter – writing of worth requires a great deal of effort. Any writer who thinks otherwise ends up with cardboard cut-outs for characters.

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