I have a simple question for you: What’s your character’s deepest, darkest secret?
Everyone has one thing that they don’t want the world to know. Everyone. Take just a moment to think about your deep, dark secret. What’s the one thing you feel so much regret and disappointment with yourself over? What would you not want your parents or your children to find out about? How far would you go to keep your secret from them?
There is a secret that lurks in your characters’ mind too. What does your character not want the world to know about? How well do they keep that secret?
This is a key to finding motivation for your characters and everyone in the cast should have one.
It’s an interesting exercise to do and you never know how much more you can deepen your story. For example, when I was working on The Three Books, I asked what Holy Sapere Adonid’s deep, dark secret was — what was he afraid of his followers and the council finding out? Here was this man who was like a Greek god in my mind (I modified his name right from Adonis, who was a handsome, fertility god) with long blond hair to die for and supreme power in the land. I’ve always seen this character in white and gold robes for innocence and sunlight. What could he possibly have ever done wrong? When I figured it out, I knew what had caused the split in the friendship between Adonid, Greytas, and Arlyn. I knew exactly what had happened (and unfortunately I can’t say now because it’s revealed in the fourth book, though not by Adonid because he would never confess his shame, but that doesn’t stop Arlyn from filling in Steigan with the truth). I also learned what Greytas’ deep, dark secret was because of finding out about Adonid’s secret. Arlyn was a bit more of a chore to find out his secret, but I now know his. Whereas Adonid and Greytas have their secrets stemming from events when they were adults, Arlyn’s comes from when he was a child.
When a character fears having that secret revealed, they will go to almost any length to keep it under wraps.
Another fun exercise with this is to go somewhere populated, like a park, mall, or even the grocery store, and watch people. As yourself what deep, dark secret that little old lady squeezing every loaf of bread has. Or the Hispanic man who is on the phone and checking his watch. See the blond girls there giggling close together as they walk along? Are they in on each other’s secret? What would it take for one of them to reveal her friend’s secret to a rival? Or a boy she liked because she wanted to impress him? Oh, this can be fun.
There’s a good chance that you’ll never reveal this secret to your readers — not all of them become important to the story. In the life of Saint Steigan, there’s a period of about 30 cycles which he never EVER talks about, not even to me. I had to go to Annae to fill in the blanks for me and even she wasn’t privy to Steigan’s innermost thoughts. I know Saint Steigan’s deep, dark secret happens in this time. I just know it. I suspect I know what it is, but he’s very good at keeping me from touching upon it. I know that Dominus Steigan’s deep, dark secret was being kissed in the alleyway by the baker’s daughter. He was not prepared for that and hopes every day that he was so awful at it that she has never told anyone about it. He also never let himself be put in a compromising position like that again. Yes, a deep, dark secret can be something as innocent as that — a stolen kiss. For a character whose long-term goal of having a family seems like an unrealistic pipe-dream (so much so that he refuses to admit having this goal even to himself), an intimate moment like this is not something he wants the world to know about.
Now, what deep dark secret is your villain hiding? As I said in The Write Edit, “It takes years to develop the human personality. Why would you spend only a few minutes creating the villain who takes on your main character?”