…and some will lead…

by Toni McGee Causey

They are the people who run up the stairs in a burning building where terrorist planes have crashed. 

They are the men and women who run toward the gunshots instead of away. 

They are the medics who keep a fellow soldier from bleeding out on the field when mortar fire falls around them. 

They are the pilots quietly landing a jet in the middle of a river.

They are the passengers, helping other passengers, leaping into the water to pull someone back on the airplane wing. 


Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Grace under pressure, choices that weigh the balance of their own life against the value of others.

Flawed people. 

Allison's terrific blog about villains made me think about some of my pet peeves about heroes, and what a missed opportunity a hero sometimes is. As writers, we want people to root for our hero, we ultimately need them to be likable at some level, and we need who they are to resonate with enough readers that more and more people will identify with him/her (I am using "hero" as the generic term) so that people recommend the book to others. 

One problem I find with a lot of heroes in a lot of stories is that they turn out to be somewhat generic people. Sure, they have some quirks and individualized traits, but in and of themselves, they're not all that memorable. They feel morally compelled to do what they do and while they have some past history that makes them not-perfect, and the obstacles are fierce, they rise to the occasion to vanquish the foe. And a lot of times, this works well enough within the context of the story that I'm not thrown out, I'll be entertained enough to read to the end, but a week later, I can't remember their name. A month later, I can't remember the book. 

Hero does not have to be synonymous with heroic. As in, a character constantly leading a heroic life. They should be flawed people, sometimes awful people, with their own moments of self-centeredness, doubt, grumpiness, ailments, and bad habits. 

A second problem I have found is a bit more insidious and fascinating, in a cultural context, and that's what I have started calling the "sell sheet" for the character:

1) is curmudgeonly
2) drinks (or is in AA) or the relevant social equivalent
3) is often a loner
4) smokes (or used to) and if the latter, now uses a patch/gum to help them stop
5) had a bad childhood
6) has moments of social responsibility (doesn't drink and drive or always uses a condom or believes in gun safety) (and yes, I realize how those can be combined for comedic effect)
7) likes music (very often jazz or the blues, occasionally indie stuff no one's heard of but it sounds cool and hip)


And in and of themselves, none of the above are bad choices, but they're not going to make the character stand out. Many of us can identify with a character like that because we've either had one or more of those traits, or we know someone who's had one or more of those characteristics, and so they are familiar enough that we can step into that hero's shoes and face the obstacles with him and root for him. (Or her.)

What is often missing, though, are the essential details to make that person unique, iconic. Now, there are often more specific details than the above, of course, but I've noticed there's also a social influence at work when a writer starts choosing those details… a cultural permission slip, if you will… that makes some particulars more "acceptable" than others. What we're often missing is what Megan Hustad referred to as a person's "shadow list" — the true personal preferences people don't want to admit to.

She says:

Using consumption habits as a sort of self-expression shorthand has become so ubiquitous that we don't even blink. Hi, I'm Megan, I'm from New York, and I like the Jam, Prince, Nina Simone, mid-1990s D.C. punk, "The Colbert Report," "Little House on the Prairie," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," "Middlemarch," "The Moviegoer," Kazuo Ishiguro, Joan Didion's essay "On Self-Respect" and Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Too much, too soon, you say? Lately I've been thinking it's a bit too much — period. The "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment, as Virginia Postrel succinctly put it in "The Substance of Style," has turned us into self-handicapping snobs: Since we've taken so much care to craft our own perfect list, we feel more entitled to shrug off anyone whose list doesn't similarly impress. Would you be interested in someone who identifies with"The Secret"? We're also keeping our distance from a whole array of cultural output because we think it sends the wrong message about who we are and what we want to be.

Now, Hustad goes on to talk about this in relation to the reader and the books he / she will admit to having read, but there's a larger implication: I can't help but think that, as authors, we often fall prey to this sort of self-editing because we're aware on some level that the I like this=I'm like this connection is going to occur to our readers and be applied back to the creator. In this global-media world, we're all inundated by what is fashionable, or culturally acceptable. A step deeper than that, we're sensitive to the fact that certain traits would have the connotation of "bad" or "loser" or "socially unacceptable" or "asshole" or "irredeemable." It's almost as if we pull back on those details because it's seventh grade all over again. 

It's a well-known given that certain personalities will gravitate to certain kinds of work–it's why you generally won't get a stone-rigid introvert applying for a talk-show host gig. But within that framework, a hero needs to be incredibly specific in order to be iconic, memorable. The reader–if not the other characters, at least the reader–needs to learn the hero's "shadow list" as they journey through the story. Sure, the hero may order steak while out to eat with a bunch of fellow officers, and probably orders scotch or beer when at the bar, but it's much more individual if he secretly likes to bake souffles and does a damned good job of it. But souffles are even socially acceptable–that's not a real "shadow" item, is it? See, I defaulted to that, in the writing just at this moment. No, a real shadow item is that he secretly bakes brownies or makes cream puffs or is itching to go buy some Fritos with chili and cheese. 

Like Allison said in her post, the villain has to be worthy of the hero–the villain has to be a significant enough of a challenge to matter, to drive the story forward, to raise the stakes for the hero with each forward parry the hero makes toward his goal that we don't know how to predict the outcome. But just as important, the hero has to be worthy of the villain–as unique, as flawed, as driven, as individual, and we need to get to know them deeply. Knowing their shadow list is one good way to start.

So–pick a character–your own or something you've read lately–and tell me that character's shadow list. Let's see how creative authors can get.

17 thoughts on “…and some will lead…

  1. cj lyons

    Toni,Love this idea!

    I think the character defining moments come when the reader sees the “real” list as opposed to the “shadow” list–what they really read, live, believe as opposed to what they place on their bookshelf or fav list for public consumption.

    What books do they hide in the sock drawer? What’s on their mp3 player but not sitting out on their CD rack in the media center dates, friends, and acquaintances can see? Do they really like that Manet print on the wall or do they just leave it there because someone once told them it was a literate choice?

    One of the things I love playing with (in both my heroes and my villains) is a quote from Peter S. Beagle: We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream…

    Great post!CJ, off to think of some shadow lists for her characters….

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is an interesting post, Toni. I like the idea of a shadow list, although at the same time I think that authors often get way too caught up in surface details or even, God forbid, brand names, and never get to the essence of the character.

    What I mean is, I think at the top of this list should be the fatal flaw, or the “Achilles’ heel” as it used to be called.

    What is the hero/ine’s greatest, most shameful weakness? Because that’s what really gets tested in a dramatic battle.

    In THE PRICE, my hero is a good and courageous man in every sense – BUT – his character weakness is that he loves his wife more than anything in life. More than (to his secret shame) their daughter, more than his honor, more than his life, more than anything.

    And that is the weakness that the antagonist can exploit.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Far too smart a post for me — it made me think. Too early to think when I was up until 3 am writing . . . but then again, Toni is also a late, late, late bird so she was probably up later than me AND she’s two hours ahead . . .

    I’ve never thought about it because I don’t consciously plan out what my characters eat, drink or read. It only comes up if it comes up in the story and then I often get surprised. I have fallen prey to stereotypes, like villains drinking good Scotch, so I upped it a bit in Fatal Secrets and my villain drinks Scotch that my husband found because it’s from Ireland and it’s not easy to get–I think you have to order it online, or you can get it from a few specialty stores. I have no idea if it’s good or not, but my husband likes it so now so does my villain (don’t read anything into that!)

    My characters are like real people when I’m writing them. I remember talking to my daughter about a problem I was having and she offered a suggestion and I said, “But Sonia wouldn’t do that.” And my daughter says, “You made her up, why can’t she do that?” Because it’s not in her character. But often I don’t know what’s not in character until I’m IN her character.

    I don’t always write flawed characters. Quinn Peterson in THE HUNT and Dean Hooper in FATAL SECRETS are not “flawed” (Hmm, except maybe arrogant) but Dean is only about his job. He’s exceptionally smart, arrogant only because his accomplishments have created this bubble around him where people keep their distance because he’s so good at his job, so he’s close to no one. He has a family, but his dad was a cop, and that was all that he was–he didn’t know how to be a dad. So when his dad died, the family went their own ways. Now, Dean sees in Sonia something he’s never had–unconditional family love and wanting to BE with family. Sonia was adopted as a teenager and her family is the most important thing because she never had one before. Dean had one, but didn’t understand the value. Not a flaw, but certainly a way for him to grow over the story. (He also makes a mistake which practically kills him because he doesn’t make mistakes, and this one may get the heroine killed . . . )

    (NOTE TO CORNELIA: Dean Hooper walked into my story long before I knew about *the* Dean so please forgive me!)

    Hmm, I could probably think of more, but I tend to write longer comments than posts, so I’ll shut up now.

  4. Louise Ure

    I’m working on the “shadow list” for the protagonist in my new book now, and because I haven’t fully (or correctly) defined it yet, he’s eluding me — receding into a two-dimensional life instead of the character I’m going to recall five years from now. Ugh.

  5. pari

    Oh, Toni,This is a deep one and me brain aint functioning so well this morn.

    So, I’ll take it in and see if I can come up with anything.

    One thing about my new character Darnda is that she has this wild ability to communicated with nonhumans and had to make moral choices about that early on in her life because she could so easily manipulate the world around her if she wanted to. I’m not sure that’s what you’re talking about, Toni . . . but it’s in the same neighborhood.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    This is such a great post.

    Charlie Fox is a fairly shadowed character, moulded by her life experience and her instincts into something she would not have chosen at the outset to be. But because I’ve been living with her for quite a while now, I don’t consciously think about her shadowed side when I sit down to write.

    But a Paul Goat Allen recently described her as, “Ill-tempered, aggressive, borderline psychotic, but also compassionate, introspective and highly principled.”

    And I thought, wow – he knows her so much better than I do.

    It made me realise something, though, when I was shaping the ideas for the antagonist in the next book – the biggest challenge Charlie faces is probably going to come from inside her own head.

    Oh, and anyone who wants a brilliant read of a very flawed but realistic hero – a retired mob hitman – should read Don Winslow’s THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE. Superb.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Heh, Allison knows me too well–she’s right, I was up until around 4:30, then back up at 7. Apologies for the lateness in my response today.

    I think the shadow list is something outside of, in addition to, those fundamental character traits that comprise our characters. I wholeheartedly agree with Alex that the fundamental flaw has to be at the top of the characters’ list of traits, and what they’re deeply ashamed of helps to form them. (I think I blogged about that, too, somewhere back here, but I am too tired to go look.)

    And I also wholeheartedly agree with the fact that too many writers default in the use of brand names as substitutes for characterization. What I’m trying to get at (and feel like I’m fumbling my way there) is the kind of likes and dislikes of the characters which become such a unique combination, we remember that character long after putting down the book or leaving the movie theater.

    Here’s an example–in the movie, Big, the Tom Hanks character’s kid wasn’t quite old enough to care about social pressure of what it was “acceptable” to like or dislike–he was just a kid who had certain tastes. When he’s suddenly in a bigger body, he’s still got those tastes and he’s honest about them, but as the movie takes its journey, he’s more and more aware that he’s not supposed to like certain things with such joy (or at all) because it’s not cool to like those things. There’s a point where the pressure of being an adult and doing what he’s supposed to do to keep this cool job of toy maker influences what he’ll tell people about himself. He hasn’t gotten more mature (which is why I think it’s an interested case study)–he’s simply learned to hide what he really likes. In a lesser movie, (much lesser), 13 going on 30, Jennifer Garner’s character is in the middle of the dance floor, wanting everyone to dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Since she’s in a grown up body (duplicate story to BIG) but having time traveled forward (fatal flaw of the film), she doesn’t realize it’s no longer socially acceptable to admit to liking Thriller and knowing all of the dance steps… so she forces her friend to go out there and do the steps with her. Little by little, the people on the side of the room abandon their reserve and join in (cheesy), but what *was* interesting was the fact that there was that typical moment where the characters were looking around at the other characters and you could feel them weighing peer pressure to stay on the side and look cool vs. join in and have some fun.

    The shadow list is that list that your character secretly likes, has good memories about, prefers. Maybe he’s a hard ass private eye who has a secret fondness for the Bee Gees “More Than A Woman” because that’s the song playing when he first kissed a girl. He’d never admit to it in public, but when the song plays, he has to restrain himself from tapping his foot.

    I think maybe I should have used the term “idiosyncrasies” when talking about the shadow list. hmmm. Maybe that would’ve been more useful.

    Zoe, thanks for the suggestion! I will get that now. (Oh, and I have yet to figure out the keystrokes on this mac to put the umlauts back over your “e”-new computer, must learn!)

  8. Catherine

    Toni I’m reading what you’ve described as the private, (private) habits people/characters have.

    I think most people have their public and private facade, but I think this is the private private facade.

    It may be more than what is potentially uncool, and may be the things and habits that you just don’t want exposed to anyone else’s judgements.Although if they are they are mega revealing.

    My public facade is to be uberorganised, and very detail focussed, creating warm surroundings, that are very functionally situated.

    My private facade that close friends and intimates know is that it takes a hell of a lot to pull this off.Life, busy,time etc.

    My private, private self knows that there are times that the nest of clutter that surrounds my desk is comforting and not as dismaying as I suppose I ‘should’ feel to this level of mess. It’s a relief to sometimes not try to control every aspect.

    While I may detail this here, a very very small number of people are welcome to see this aspect of me.

  9. Allison Brennan

    Okay, NOW I get it Toni! I think . . .

    So my heroine in SD who is this no-nonsense FBI Agent, the fact that she will sometimes relax and have a pedicure and her toenails painted might be a shadow trait. Her toes aren’t seen by anyone, she where’s closed-toed shoes, so she’d hiding this from everyone except those she’s closest to (where she can take her shoes off.)

    Or my heroine in PD who has a picture of her and her father during better times, who was convicted of killing her mother, tucked away on the wall of her office which she can only see if she specifically turns to look at it.

    Is that what you mean?

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Catherine, exactly. The private private. Excellent way of putting it.

    Allison, yes, that’s it–those little things the character would do or prefer that she’d not admit to, publicly. (I remember noting that photo of her dad as a very nice touch, by the way. It said a lot in that moment, and how she felt about her dad without her having to explain that.)

  11. Jake Nantz

    Toni -Would this be something along the lines of what you mean?

    Dan Taylor is a Christian. He and his wife are glad to witness to anyone who is willing to listen with an open mind. What most people (other than his wife) don’t know, however, is that he was once a much more hard-line purist. So much so that he refused to sleep with his H.S. girlfriend, who then cheated on him. When she came to him for help paying for the abortion, he not only told her off, but said he’d stand on a picket line outside the clinic to stop her. He now carries an extreme load of guilt, because she went to a back-alley doctor instead and wound up dead from complications.

    That’s an over-simplified version of my first protag (and putting it like that, it actually sounds kinda unrealistic…dammit), but is that sorta what you meant?

  12. Cornelia Read

    Toni, THIS is a brilliant post. You’ve got me thinking hard about a shadow list for a friend of my protag whom I just can’t quite get my head around. Huge, huge help to come at it from this angle–thank you!

  13. KateC

    Interestingly enough, many actors are stone-cold introverts, only comfortable when playing someone else. Johnny Carson was very much a loner, and yet was a talk show host. Go figure.

    I don’t like reading a book where the characters never act, well, out of character. We all have wild hares and bizarro-world moments, and so often our fictional counterparts never do.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Jake, yes, that’s a big one on the shadow list. But what’s more is that if he professes to not drink (for example), but on his worst days or private moments, he drives a few miles away to store that wouldn’t recognize him and buy a beer. Maybe it’s something even his wife doesn’t know about, but it’s there, and it’s illuminating in the detail as to his overall struggle.

    Cornelia, thanks.

    Alex, my fault. I think saying the combo of “flaws” and then “shadow” sent everyone the same place you went.

    KateC, ya know, as soon as I posted that, I remembered Johnny Carson. (cracking up)

    I’d agree about the bizarro-world moments, but I think there’s some foundation for those moments–something we haven’t admitted to, something that’s deeper than we usually let people see. And yeah, our characters should have depths that surprise even them–most people have a self-image and most people are a bit self-delusional about that image, too.

  15. Catherine

    Have to laugh at KateC’s comment about harebrained bizzaro world moments, as when I read the first scene in the first Bobbie Faye book I could all too easily see my best friend growing up doing exactly that.Uncanny.All subsequent plot twists and turns all plausible in her life.

    We ended up friends in our early teens because I could see past the surface, to the private private (it’s starting to sound kinkier but not meant that way at all). It amused me and threw her, so a friendship born.

    Thanks Toni for this topic, as usual you really got me self examining.I could see the truth in what you were saying, and wondered as I think I’m obnoxiously open, what I really like, but am not keen on other people knowing about me.

    I tell you, Murderati is cheaper than therapy.


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