Wednesday, January 27, 2021

How to Shame Your Characters and Win Readers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If your characters aren’t hiding shameful secrets, you’re missing an opportunity for a stronger story.

Close your eyes and think about your most shameful secret. Feel that twist in your gut? That flush creeping across your skin? Have you pulled in on yourself, maybe crossed your arms and hunched your shoulders?

Remember those feelings, because you can make serious use of them in your writing.

Few things motivate a character like the fear of shameful secrets coming to light. It doesn’t even have to be a really bad secret, just one that makes a character cringe and wish it never happened. Maybe they bullied someone. Maybe they stole something. Maybe they dropped the vial of zombie virus and started the apocalypse.

Whatever it is, it hurts them to think about it and horrifies them that someone else might find out—or worse—call them on it. It saps their confidence, pops into their mind at the worst times, and can ruin an otherwise excellent day.

And that’s a good thing.

Shameful secrets add a layer of depth to a character.

But we don’t always take advantage of them. In our efforts to create likable and worthy characters, we often forget to let them be human and make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Mistakes than they’re ashamed of, and wish they never made.

They don’t have to be “murdered a man and watched him die” type mistakes, but everyone has done something they wish they hadn’t at some point in their lives.

If you’re writing a mystery, shameful secrets are particularly useful—they’re the things your suspects are hiding that have nothing to do with the actual crime. This gives them reasons to avoid answering questions, and make them look guilty when they’re not.

Here’s how to turn character shame into story gold:

Pick at their emotional scabs.

Past shames often create emotional triggers that you can exploit as needed in your character. Need them to fly off the handle for “no reason?” Have someone inadvertently press that shame hot button. Need them to distrust someone? Tie it into the shame. Want them to avoid talking to that detective? Make them fear their secret might be at risk—even if it’s not what the detective is after.

A past shame might connect directly to the plot, or it could just be something that affects the protagonist’s choices regarding the plot. They could easily do the wrong thing and make the bad call in order to keep this shame from becoming known. Think about that shame and consider:
  • How does the shame affect their day-to-day choices?
  • How often do they think about the shame?
  • What triggers the memory of that shame?
  • What other actions or mistakes are a result of this shame?

The more profound the shame, the more it’s likely to affect the character—and the easier it is for you to make use of it. Shameful secrets are character blackmail. You can force your characters to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, either by threatening to expose those secrets, or reminding them they still have penance to pay to make up for it.

Maybe the character is trying to make amends, or has a knee-jerk reaction to anything that comes close to what they’re ashamed about. It’ll probably affect how they feel about themselves, maybe make them doubt the type of person they are, or if they’re worthy of something they want. It might be the reason they push themselves so hard to be successful, feeling a need to put that mistake or choice behind them (or it could be the reason they’re successful).

(Here's more on What Makes Your Characters Uncomfortable?)

Get them into trouble with their friends.

It’s always a shock when people we thought we knew say or do something that makes us realize they aren’t at all who we thought they were. We reevaluate everything we think and feel about them, and that can change the relationship completely. Need to isolate a character? Reveal a shameful secret that sends friends and allies running (even if it’s only for a short while). Need to ruin a relationship? Make the shame responsible for unforgivable actions.

Shame can also affect how a character interacts with others, even if it’s not revealed. There might be topics that always trigger a negative reaction, or people they avoid because it brings up bad memories. Maybe they overcompensate in some way. The worse the shame, the more likely it is to control how a character behaves. Think about the character’s shame and ask:
  • Who is avoided because of this shame?
  • Who is treated differently because of it?
  • Who is treated worse?
  • Who is treated better?
  • Who treats them differently?

It’s also fun to consider how someone who does know this secret might act around this character. Maybe this is a point of consternation, or a reason two people don’t get along. Or even the reason two people who clearly hate each other always seem to be involved in something together.

(Here’s more on Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel) 

Embarrass them in front of everyone.

And of course, secrets aren’t always a secret, so we can have other characters in the story know the shame of our characters and be willing—and able—to use it. Need the antagonist to turn people against the protagonist? Maybe the shame can do that. Need to distract the protagonist so they miss acting on, noticing, or realizing something critically important? Reveal a secret and shame them so that’s all they can focus on.

Embarrassment can also have a positive effect—maybe this revelation is what earns the character the sympathy they need to finally be understood. Shedding it might be the thing that lets them move past it and grow. Sharing a shameful secret might be something they do to help another character struggling with a similar secret. As yourself:
  • Who else knows about the shame?
  • How do they feel about it?
  • What do they do about it?
  • How does it change their perception or opinion of the protagonist?
  • Who else have they told?

Bringing shameful secrets out into the sun can have both devastating effects, and fortuitous outcomes. Secrets that have been holding a character back can be revealed to set them free.

(Here’s more on How Shame and Vulnerability Can Connect Us to Characters)

To add some emotional oompf to your novel, find what your characters are ashamed of and use it against (or to help) them.

Shame is a useful emotional tool in both plotting and developing your character arcs. It’s a strong motivator for any behavior you need your character to exhibit, and something readers can sympathize with when the secret is revealed.

Take five minutes and think about what shameful secrets your protagonist might have, and how that might strengthen the story overall. Do the same with the other major characters in the novel.

What are your characters ashamed of?

*Originally published January 2016. Last updated January 2021.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Another great post Janice. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is timely! I'm just working through a piece now where my erstwhile Sheriff is feeling guilty for neglecting the wife and the mother-in-law has been laying the guilt on thick. This post gave me some new ideas to carry the shame and the guilt out just a little further. Fun stuff!

    1. Glad it was helpful :) It's always nice when a post is just what someone needed.

  3. Always a handy post.

    If anyone's wondering: technically, "guilt" is the character believing they've done something wrong. "Shame" is moving beyond that to some fear that it makes them a Bad Person, and seeking redemption might get a lot messier than just making up for one problem. So a story's usually stronger when the character does go past simple guilt into true shame.

  4. Even the title is enough to make me dissolve in thought... Thank you!

  5. My character is ashamed that she used a singular noun with a plural verb in the title of her article.

    Yes, it is Monday.

    1. We all make typos. Especially when we change our minds about a title just before hitting publish. :)

  6. Excellent and timely post. Thanks for sharing.

  7. As usual, your posts are spot on and have perfect timing! For a while, I'd been thinking what makes my main character tick. Why should the reader keep reading about him? Why is he, in fact, the main character? So I had to dig up dirt on him, and it turns out that he has a deep, dark secret no one would ever expect because it's downright illegal and demonic. This is a great post to remember for when crafting a plot and developing characters. Thanks!

  8. Another jam packed post. Thanks

  9. I knew I'd read this one. But I don't at all mind the reminder! :)

  10. Good post. I've read many of your ways to torture characters; it makes somewhat curious about how you treat the "real people" in your life.

    1. LOL I'm nice to real people :) My dark side only applies to fiction.

  11. Always helpful articles, thank you!

  12. Fantastic post! The emotional fears everyone carries around inside (the baggage we may not want others to see) are far more interesting than the fear of forces in nature.

    1. Thanks! The relatable issues are always more compelling.

  13. What a great post. I realise that one of my characters has a shameful secret in his backstory that no one knows. I use it a bit, but could make much more use of it.

    1. Sounds like a great opportunity to deepen that character :) Go for it!