A Guest Blog Post
By Susan Furlong
Ever been haunted by a book character? Someone you just can’t shake even after you turn the last page? They follow you through your daily tasks, popping back into your mind from time to time. They seem almost alive, and you can’t wait to visit them again and join in their next adventure. Those are the type of characters I strive to write in each of my stories. And I do it by creating—and keeping—their secrets.
Secrets? Yes. Lots and lots of secrets. Because I believe it’s our past secrets that define our current day actions. It’s the same for book characters. A character without a compelling backstory, most of which is kept hidden from the reader, will seem about as dynamic as a cold, flat rock.
So before I begin a novel, I take time to write my characters’ past story, including a life-defining event or a juicy secret. A character’s secret can take on any form. It can be horrifying, guilt-driven, or humiliating. But no matter the secret, it must influence my character at a deep and personal level. The best secrets are those that have the power to push people apart or drive them into cohorts, cause family estrangement or derail even the most devoted lovers. Secrets that, once revealed, could cause your protagonist to lose something of importance, whether it be love, respect, community standing, money or power.
For example, I may present a character as a successful lawyer who is well respected in the legal community, but only I know she cheated on her bar exam, or that she worked evenings in a strip bar to pay her college expenses. However, developing her past personal struggles helps me, as the writer, to understand her motivation to take on the cause of an undereducated, poor woman guilty of heinous murder. Or why she may hide evidence that proves that woman’s guilt. Knowing my character’s secret before I begin writing helps me form her story, understand her motivations and make her seem real to my readers.
Will I divulge these gritty details of my character’s past to my readers? Well … eventually. Take my character Nola Harper in my Georgia Peach Mystery series. She left her hometown of Cays Mill, Georgia years ago. Why did she leave in such a hurry and avoid visiting for so long? I’ll drop hints here and there, but only enough to keep readers wanting to know more. After all, there’s nothing more mysterious and intriguing than a well-kept secret. And there is nothing that makes readers feel closer to, more in-tune with, and more concerned about a character than when their deepest secret is finally revealed.
About the Book: REST IN PEACH: A Georgia Peach Mystery by Susan Furlong, Berkley Prime Crime paperback, April 5, 2016, $7.99.