Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.
Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.
Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!
That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!
Flip the Script)
Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.
This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?
The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.
Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.
And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.
Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.
But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.
Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.
Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.
His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.
We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.
True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!