We talk about character development quite often around here, hashing out all the details large and small that writers should know about their characters, whether or not those details find their way into the story. We share techniques for fleshing out characters, from using gaming aids to people-watching in public places. We agonize over our characters, wondering if we’ve chosen the right name for each one or if the voice we hear in our heads is really that character or some other who hasn’t introduced himself to us yet. It’s important for our characters to come alive in our imaginations, so they’ll come alive for our readers. But sometimes it’s what we don’t tell that makes a character come alive.
Many years ago, I was working in an independent bookstore in the mall. Usually I manned the Customer Service desk, which meant I spent my days directing shoppers to the bestsellers or the childrens’ books, and trying to help them remember the name of the book they’d seen Oprah promote two months ago (and this was before the Internet, so searches were a real chore.) But one day the woman who worked upstairs in paperbacks had to have surgery, and the manager asked me to help out. She gave me a list of books that needed to be stripped and sent me up the stairs. It was a quiet day, not a lot of customers to get in the way, so in between stripping books, I was reading the back covers of books I wasn’t discarding. (You didn’t think I could surround myself with books and not shop a little?) That was when I discovered The Anubis Gates. Coleridge expert Brendan Doyle joins a mysterious millionaire’s private party to travel in time to 1810, to attend a lecture by Coleridge. He is stranded when the party leaves without him, but decides to look for another poet he’s studied extensively, William Ashbless, and beg for his help. Interspersed in the book are passages from Ashbless’ poem The Twelve Hours of the Night, and I was utterly entranced. I wanted to read the whole poem, as well as anything else Ashbless might have written, so before I finished reading, I began looking in old poetry anthologies and encyclopedias for any mention of Ashbless. I talked to librarians at the college library, all of whom shook their heads in tight-lipped confusion (well, except for one graduate student, who thought he might have been a contemporary poet living on a commune in Oregon. Hey, she tried.) My search turned up nothing, of course, because Ashbless was the invention of Tim Powers and James Blaylock. During their college days, they’d entertain themselves by writing epic poetry and sending their work to the school literary magazine in the name of William Ashbless. He was a little bit of each of them and a whole lot of himself, and a wonderfully mysterious character. Even after I knew the truth, I couldn’t help feeling that there was still some secret about him. That’s the way he was written – even when the book ended, you didn’t know all there was to know, and you weren’t going to.
Besides, it’s just fun to know something about your character that no one else knows. Once years ago in game, I had a character who split away from her friends, and found a locked chest. Inside was a black cloak with all sorts of magical pockets. She could create water from one, call forth animal companions from another, and so on. The cool part was that from the outside, it looked exactly like the plain black cloak she was already wearing. She took off her plain cloak, folded it up and placed it in the chest, then donned the magical cloak. She locked the chest again, and rejoined her friends. Much later, they all randomed onto the chest, but my character never said a word. It was too much fun knowing a secret and not sharing it.
Just because we know everything, we don’t have to tell it all. Today, choose one of your characters, and try to think about what secrets he might be keeping. Don’t tell me, and don’t put it in the story, but see what you can do to drop a tantalizing hint. Maybe one day someone will be talking about your secret the same way I just told you about Ashbless. Wouldn’t that be cool?