How masking your character’s true nature can make them more complex
Trying to rent
When I first moved in with my husband, we were looking for somewhere to rent in North London. Trying to find something that we both liked, that we could afford and in a suitable location was a challenge.
We eventually found a flat in East Finchley that fit the bill. Both sides of the first floor property had large windows allowing light to flood through it. We could imagine ourselves barbecuing in the beautifully kept communal gardens (on the few summer days that would allow it). The second bedroom meant we could accommodate visitors from Australia.
At the estate agents, all started well. We filled in the forms for credit and reference checks and, a few days later, these came back positive. The agent congratulated us and we thought we would move in soon.
Change of circumstances
Then the landlord decided that the property was no longer on the market. She had to move back in herself, or some story like that, and so we could no longer rent the place.
Naturally, we were disappointed, but we didn’t dwell too long on it. You learn to expect that something will go wrong and don’t get your hopes too high until you have the keys in your hand.
We widened our search a little. Moving closer towards the city centre would be more expensive. We took the tube down to Highgate and walked along the high street. Yes, it is one of the most expensive suburbs to live in, but I like to get some bounds on what we can afford.
We stared into the window of the estate agents at properties that we could only dream about. Amongst the luxury apartments, I thought I saw one I recognised. I looked again.
The picture was the same one from the estate agents in East Finchley. But we knew it was no longer on the market. We decided to let them know, so they could take it out of the window.
The woman inside was friendly. She greeted us with a warm smile and asked us to sit down. We explained about the property no longer being on the market. Her brow creased into a puzzled frown. She had heard nothing about that. She’d give the landlord a ring.
A few minutes later, she contradicted our story. The landlord was still renting the property.
We explained to the estate agent what had happened. How we had completed all the reference checks only to be told it was no longer available. It looked like the landlord had changed agents to avoid having to rent to us, or explain her prejudice.
Fortunately, this agent decided that was not okay. She rang the landlord back and told her that should she decide not to rent the property to us, she could no longer represent her. Furthermore, she would make sure that no other estate agent would handle the property either. They would not tolerate prejudice in rentals.
So in the end we rented the flat and stayed there for a couple of years. Naturally, any time we met with the woman who hadn’t wanted to rent to us, it was awkward. When we moved out, we made sure the place was spotless. She was a stickler, but she couldn’t find fault. Well actually, there was one thing; a teaspoon was missing. She counted them.
I am a huge fan of the book 27 Essential Principles of Story by Daniel Joshua Rubin. The examples he uses range from Shakespeare to South Park, from Eminem to Dostoevsky. Each chapter takes one aspect of story and explains how you should employ it. He lays out how a master storyteller did it, and challenges you to do it yourself.
One chapter on character is called Mask everyone. When we meet someone, we see them in a particular context and only the mask that they want to show us. By hiding the character’s true nature, a storyteller can create mystery. There may be hints of who they are, but we may dismiss them until we know the truth.
When the mask slips and we see the truth beneath, it can be an exciting revelation. Everything that has gone previously will take on new meaning.
The example given in the book is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabhan by J. K. Rowling. She hid many of her characters behind masks. In that book, Sirius Black is not how he appears, nor is Remus Lupin.
It is a pattern that comes throughout the Harry Potter series. My favourite is Delores Umbridge, who appears to be sweet whilst she is really a sadist.
I’ve been listening to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast by Savannah Gilbo. She has been analysing the first chapters of each of the Harry Potter novels from a macro and micro level. She keeps returning to the character Severus Snape, perhaps the ultimate character with a mask, or many masks, and we aren’t sure about his true nature until the end of the series.
Do the characters you create have enough levels?
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