Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters

Many writers spend days, weeks, months creating characters using complex character profile worksheets. But the best characters aren’t a collection of data points on a worksheet. Depending upon the genre, physical attributes, likes and dislikes, or what he’s wearing may disrupt story flow. The lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power. What makes the story work is that emotion that ties it all together.

Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters. by Lynette M. BurrowsThe Why

Lisa Cron calls it your character’s why. KM Weiland calls it your character’s lie. Brandilyn Collins calls it inner values. Donald Maass says it’s how we get readers to make their own emotional journey. What are they talking about? The thing inside the person that guides him in his choices. It’s the reason you choose B over A when A and B are equal. We all have that thing. Most of us don’t think about it much, it just is. As a writer, you must think about it. You must use it to sharpen the point of your story. For the sake of brevity, I’ll call that thing value from now on.

Lisa Cron calls this value the story’s third rail. In an electric railroad system, the third rail is the rail that supplies the power. It keeps the train moving. Being stuck in a story often is because your third rail has no power. You haven’t stuck to, haven’t even thought about, what values are guiding your protagonist.

Lies, Secrets, and Scars Make Better Characters by Lynette M BurrowsValue in Every Scene

What is the value that you, the writer, wish to evoke with this story? Sometimes what you want is a HEA (happily ever after). You may want a victorious feeling or a sad, but inevitable feeling. That value is up to you. But you must create your characters to best express that value. How does your protagonist convey his or her need for that value? Does each scene express some variation of that value? Yes, every one. If the scene does not evoke a value that will build to the crisis and climax emotion that you desire, delete the scene. How do you know what value it sirs in the reader?

More Than One

When we speak of the value of the story it’s related to emotion. And it’s not only one emotion or value your character must have. The character also has a value that prohibits him from reaching his goal. Otherwise, why has he not been able to reach his goal before the story starts?  This is where the true power comes from. Two incompatible (not necessarily opposite) values drive your character. This ensures that he will struggle to get to his goal. It’s why he hasn’t reached this goal prior to the story start. How and why he overcomes his struggle is why we read. On at least a subconscious level, we read to find ways to make it through our personal struggles.

More than a Smile, Nod, and Shrug

When you get around to writing, plan to let your readers in—let the reader feel what your character feels. Don’t tell the reader how to feel. Show how your character feels. Give your character the tics and twinges that strong values give humans. If you have to label the value or emotion, then you are telling. Sometimes telling is appropriate. But the more you tell the story, the greater distance between your reader and your story world.

Still Not Convinced?

Take a look at the three characters images on this post. Do they all represent the same values? What impressions do you have of these three characters? They aren’t the same, are they? Yes, I chose these images for the greatest contrast. But you felt a difference between each of these characters, more than just the clothes or setting. We humans make judgements about what other people value. Yes, it’s often informed by what they are wearing, doing, and the setting around them. That’s what you, the writer, need to be aware of and use to your story’s advantage.

Questions? Need More Information?

I’m happy to answer questions in the comments or by email. You’ll find my contact information under the FAQ tab in the header.

If you need more information I recommend Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius,  KM Weiland’s YouTube channelpodcasts and website, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, and Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins. There are tons more books and podcasts and websites out there where you can find great advice and tips. What are your favorites?

This has been a brief look into creating the lies, secrets, and scars of your characters in my Stories Need Structure series. If you’ve missed the previous posts, go to The ABCs of How to Write a Good Story  and How to Construct a Solid Gold Story And don’t forget to let me know what you think or if there’s a particular area you’d like me to add to my series. Thanks for reading!


  1. “The lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power.” This sentence is exactly what I needed this morning so thank you. These posts are so helpful, Lynette. I’m determined to get a strong draft of this novel and while essays flex the writing muscle, the tension is just not them. But you know all that. Again, thank you.

    1. Oh, thank you, KM!
      I’m so glad that you find these posts helpful. Keep working on that novel, you’ll get there.

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