Peek-a-Boo! I See You! Writing Fictional Characters

Babies and little kids love to play peek-a-boo; they delight in the smiling glimpses sandwiched between momentary disappearances. But what about the rest of us?

Do we live in a perpetual state of peek-a-boo? And what if we had no privacy veil? No moments hidden from outside scrutiny. How would we look then?

I’m pretty sure that when we watch ‘reality TV,’ little of what we take from it is all that real. There’s pretty much always a villain, a goody-two-shoes, and a bunch of folks who kind of meld together to form the less-remarkable middle. The thing is, we make our judgments based solely on carefully chosen snippets that are presented to us by the producers—clearly not a total picture.

I think the same happens in real life. If I always see you being kind and cooperative, I’m likely to hold you in high regard. On the other hand, if I’m privy only to your least attractive moments, I may not care for you, not realizing that they represent but a small portion of the total picture.

What if there was a camera rolling at all times? How would we look then? I doubt that any of us would sign up to have our every moment available for public appraisal. People, even genuinely decent people, have villainous moments. We are sometimes crabby and impatient. We lash out, curl up in fear or sadness, speak without forethought, and act hastily. We don't always look out for the best interests of others, so focused are we on what we want and need. We are sometimes lazy and shirk our responsibilities. If we were to be watched continuously, it would become clear that we are sometimes downright disgraceful.

All of us. No exceptions.

Fiction writers—good ones—understand the importance of letting their characters’ humanness show. Bad guys need to have a soft side, a pitiable weakness, something. Without it, readers won't get fully vested in the story because it will feel off—they may night be able to identify exactly what’s missing, but they’ll inherently know that something is.

The same goes for the protagonist. We can only champion their cause when we have a spark of connection—we don’t need to feel that we’ve walked in their very shoes, just that we understand how and why they walk in them. And to get that, we need to recognize something of ourselves in those reasons. We need to see the frailty beneath their strength, their uncertainty, their flaws. Their inner bitch needs to shine, if only in quick peek-a-boo glimpses. The best fiction feels like it could be reality. That it is, in fact, a true story. And one of the keys to making it real is to write people who are like you and I—a blend of good and evil, happy and sad, strength and weakness.


  1. I'm always relieved when someone who appears perfect shows that they're human like everyone else. It makes me like them better. Someone who's superhuman never seems real. Good reminder to apply this to our fictional characters, too. Sometimes I wonder why the villain sounds cardboardy and it's because I haven't made him human enough with that mixture of contradictory qualities that we all have of good and evil, etc as you said.

  2. This is why Janet Evanovich is one of my favorite authors. Granted, her Stephanie Plum series borders on pulp fiction, but her characters are beautifully flawed. Excellent post. I would like to try my hand at fiction, but I suck at plot lines!

  3. Correct me if I am wrong here, but as an adult, I believe "peek-a-boo" gets referred to as a "Peeping Tom" and gets you five to ten years.


  4. My reality show would be super boring.

  5. Cute picture, and an interesting thought. Not sure I agree that people need to let the inner bitch out. I generally think people need to practice a bit more control over themselves and how they behave. I don't really need to be mistreated cause you didn't sleep well last night. Buck up, don't make your problem everyone else's. They in fact might have a worse problem.

    I hate, and never watch any reality tv shows, and hope most people realize there's nothing real about them.

    Bookwise, though you might be right. Nice to hit a post, been getting discouraged spending time going throught he long list of people signed up on z-a and finding so few new posts.

  6. The truth lady, no matter how sweet a person is, how kind there is always another side. But then after all there has to be balance in all things even the human spirit and nature. We did a blog once on GBE and the topic was what would you want people to say when your gone. Was simple for me, I want them to say the truth, that I always tried to be kind to others but that I had my moments and could be a bitch big time. I think the line gets drawn when those we love are being attacked in some way, then the Momma bear tends to come out growling. Love your writing Beth you always do an awesome job. Hugs Jul

  7. @Cathy: Too creepy or too perfect--wither way, no one wants to hang out with them. ;O)

    @Cyndi: I've never read Evanovich. I'll have to give her a read.

    @Larry: So that's why my neighbor keeps giving me those dirty looks...

    @DWV: Mine too. :O(

    @Sandy: I agree that in real life, people need to avoid prancing their inner bitches around in public. In writing, though, we need to make sure our readers see a bit of our characters' bitchiness (or other flaws) in order for the people to come to life.

    @Jul: I remember that topic for the GBE! I agree with you, just speak the truth about me and I'm fine with it--both now and after I'm dead. For that week, I wrote about the 'post-mortem rewrite' that people often do, recreating a dead person into a saintly, plain-vanilla being. Yuck. I wonder if I still have that piece around anywhere.

    The GBE was great, wasn't it? Alicia really grew something wonderful there. ♥

  8. Great post. I love when an author truly develops their characters and give them such depth.

  9. @Amy: Thank you. The stories I like best are always character-driven.

  10. I like the idea of bits peeking out of our characters, even if that's not how they "usually" are. I don't much care for people who always say or think the right thing - if I had 17 drafts to get it right, I would too, but that's not realistic, and we want characters to be real, even though they're clearly not.

  11. Good points for me to keep in mind. Thanks!

  12. @Mike: From what I've seen of your writing, you gave a good handle on characterization. Enough so that I always want to read more! :O)


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