My sons dress in their Transformer costumes with giggling hops. “Trick or treating!” They chime over and over, so thrilled to begin the candy feast early with a special Halloween event at the zoo. My little Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are ready to roll out against Decepticons and other devious evildoers in the name of candy.
Our exteriors say so much about us. I’m not just talking about donning the armor of alien transforming heroes, but our behaviors around other people. How we are around others can differ vastly with how we think, act, and exist in solitude. We–and our characters–are so often “more than meets the eye.”
Let’s consider a few examples, beginning with the well-known Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games. The story opens with Kat being tender to her younger sister Primrose on the morning before the Reaping, when candidates are selected for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is chosen, Kat cries out to volunteer in her sister’s place. Prim tries to stop her, but Kat refuses to give in.
“Prim, let go,” I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don’t want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reapings tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I’ll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. “Let go!” (23)
From here on out, Kat is about as gruff and curt as she can be with nearly every other character in the book. She knows what it means to hunt, starve, and lose a loved one. Kat’s determined to survive for her family’s sake, which means she will not let any other tributes figure out her skill set or weaknesses.
But I want to note here that Kat does have a tender heart. It’s been burned, yes, but it’s there, visible any time Kat’s with her sister (and her eventual love interests, but blah blah on that for this post). Had Suzanne Collins merely wrote Kat as a hunter without family–that is, made Kat nothing but her tough shell–then what would Kat’s motivation be? The entire tone of the narrative would change from one of survival to protect to…acceptance? Glory? Who knows?
Heroes and villains both can have these tough exteriors with the occasional crack. And cracks they must have, or again, readers will think the character nothing but the tough shell. Take two of the primary characters in The Boys— Homelander, leader of the elite superhero group The Seven who is also the primary antagonist of the series, and Butcher, leader of The Boys, the group created to keep superheroes in line.
Each has their tough exterior: Butcher can be a right bastard to people, ready to literally rip someone to shreds for being a “supe.” Homelander, all posh and elegance in front of the cameras, is all too eager to make Starlight have oral sex with him in order to join The Seven. He’s also gathering up all the superheros to support a takeover of the American government, all too eager to cut the corporate leash upon him with a blink of his eye lazers.
Yet this same Homelander will cry in a fetal position in the bathroom, asking himself why he can’t remember ripping up human beings with his teeth. This same Butcher didn’t always swing fists or revel in pain. He had a wife once. He had love once. And because Butcher once knew love, he’s willing to give his fellow Boy and friend Hughie a chance to save his girlfriend Starlight before Butcher attempts to wipe every supe off the planet.
These cracks don’t have to appear often. If they did, then readers and other characters aren’t going to see a “tough” exterior at all. These cracks need only be visible at a few important moments for the sake of plot, conflict, or other narrative element.
Consider the classic A Christmas Carol (Yes, I know it’s only October, but hey, there’s ghosts in this.) The Ghost of Christmas Past has brought Scrooge to his years of apprenticeship under Fezziwig. The Ghost points at Apprentice Scrooge and the other youths praising and thanking Fezziwig and says:
“A small matter…to make these silly folks so full of gratitude…He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge. (49)
See that? For a brief moment, Scrooge is no longer the “Scrooge” we saw at the beginning. The bitter miser has been replaced with a man of passion for his first employer and mentor. Only when the Ghost of Christmas Past studies him and calls attention to the crack does Scrooge seal his exterior back up again. But thanks to this moment, the Spirit and readers both know there is more to Scrooge than the opening pages suggest.
I’ve been thinking about these tough exteriors a good deal with my Fallen Princeborn series, especially with my latest short story, “Tattered Rhapsody.” The last story in my collection Tales of the River Vine centers on heroine Charlotte: her ragged, “goblin-bent” form of broken fingers and boney limbs. Her quick words and quicker fists. Her music. Her sister. And, at last, a moment of true hope.
One of the elements within a timeless story are complete characters: not just HEROES made only of dash and daring, or VILLAINS only vile and wicked, but people. People who don an armor to protect their inner selves, who only reveal those inner selves when least expected by readers–or themselves. What hopes and fears hide behind your characters’ armor? Set them alight, and let readers see–just for a moment–the cracks in the tough exterior.
It’s been so exciting to read comments and reviews from readers. If you snatched a free copy of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen during my ARC giveaway, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on Amazon and Goodreads! You can share your thoughts on the short stories there, too. Seriously, every review makes a HUGE difference for these stories’ visibility on the global bookshelf. Even Kirkus Reviews has some pretty sweet things to say about Stolen—click here and see!
For those waiting to purchase a copy: next week, folks. Next. Week.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!