Masking has been with humanity about as long as we’ve been human. Something about self-awareness just seems to open us up to the allure of borrowing someone else’s aspect for an hour or two. Whether made of paint or tile, fabric or wood or the skin of another creature, a mask creates a physical barrier over the face that enables the wearer to drop the psychological masks they normally carry. The masker can then choose to assume a trait or personality not their own, or to bring one of their less dominant sides to the fore, or to simply be, without any pretenses at all.
Writing—well, writing fiction, anyway—is a form of masking. The writer steps into the soul and circumstance of someone else in order to explore the world as that person.
Forget the notion of writing what you know. If all of us confined ourselves to writing only what we know, there would be endless novels with no plot except what William Goldman summed up so well as “what with one thing and another, five years passed.” No, we don’t write what we know; we write to tell a true lie.
And part of that truth is understanding what the characters experience.
Not just understanding it. Feeling it. Believing it. You have to put yourself in that character’s mind as if you slipped their face on over your own and subsumed your personality to theirs.
Sometimes writing takes you to a place of happy abandon, like a street party during Carnivale or a Twelfth Night revel. You can be someone funnier, or smarter, or handier in a fight. You can triumph in ways that, in real life, you would never dream of.
But just as many times writing takes you to a darker place—a Halloween night where you must literally dress as a devil in order to survive. You might have to be someone who has lost things you can’t bear to think about, someone who is angry and volatile and hurtful, someone who could never be you…unless they could be.
No matter how far you sink into the role-playing, though, pretending isn’t the same as doing. Empathy is not the same as experience. That’s the beautiful thing about masking. The persona that comes out from under the mask isn’t our usual personality. It is a part of ourselves we might work diligently to control, or a foil to our everyday self. Putting on a mask is the chance to try out being someone else without having to change who we really are.
The writers who create the best characters are the ones most willing let that mask quell their inhibitions—the ones who let themselves feel the emotions or demons or ambitions driving the hero and the villain alike. The ones who let raw humanity take over the thoughts and actions of the characters on page, even when that human element is not refined or glamorous or logical.
Not all writers can (or, perhaps I mean are willing to) do this, just like some people can put on a mask and be too self-conscious to speak. A mask is an opportunity to be free, not a guarantee of freedom.
A mask opens the door to the cage we keep ourselves inside—going through the door is a choice.