Who are you when nobody is looking? This question defines characters in life and fiction. Everything we are on the outside is only a show.

I’m going to call you a liar right now. The person you pretend you are to your boss, your co-workers, your lover, your friends, and your family is not you. You wear masks. You do this every second of every day. You tell people you’re fine when you’re not. You tell your friends great adventure stories when maybe your night didn’t go as well as it could have. You smile when you aren’t really happy. Here’s the true test. Look your friends and lovers and characters in the eyes. A true smile is there, not on the lips. You can’t fake delight in the eyes. Any other smile is a lie, a mask. You shape those masks, but everyone conspires with you. They want to see you as something else. They view you through their own distorted lens; who they want you or need you to be. Just watch a politician talking about religion for two minutes and you’ll know what a liar looks like.

Yet if you put someone by himself or herself, or put them in crisis, then that’s who they really are. Thieves. Cheaters. Liars. Selfish. Maybe or maybe not. Maybe they give money to a homeless person when nobody is around. Maybe they go further and do something that nobody will recognize them for. They do it anyway. This is the true nature of your character.

It goes deeper. How someone reacts to adversity is the defining line between a hero and a villain. The hero faces the challenge and fights back. The villain uses his failure as justification for his actions. He blames the universe. In fact, the story I’m working on right now shows two characters facing similar crisis in their youth. One lashes out at God and the universe. The other sees something greater at work and accepts their role in the war. This is it. It ain’t more complicated than this. One person starts in poverty and becomes rich. Another starts in poverty and stays there. The difference is character. One person faces abuse as a child and becomes a model father. The second beats their kid, extending the cycle. The differences between these two decision points make all the difference in the world. What are the factors that drive these differences? These are the questions your fiction has to answer.

There is one important caveat to all this. A hero who boldly rises to the challenge the first time he faces a fight is boring. A hero starts off failing. He has to fail for us to care about him. This is what makes him human. A hero may break down under pressure at first. We can understand that. We can go with it. But how he responds later, is who he is. How he responds again to punishment and pain is what draws the line.

I remember a horrible day when I was young, living in New York City. I was waiting for the subway. A mother came down the stairs, beating her child, the child cowering. I wanted to do something. Everybody did. It was over the edge. The kid was defenseless; his hands were raised to shield his face, snot running down his nose, as she backed him into a corner. I moved towards her and started to say something. Someone else came to the kid’s aid quicker than me and shouted, “Why are you beating him?” She turned on him like a demon, screeching, coming at him. He backed off, scared of a woman half his size. She was a thousand times bigger than anyone in that subway. Nobody else did anything. I quietly stepped back onto the train, rationalizing that I was late to work. A coward. That’s who I was that day. I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve tried to make up for it a thousand times. It still makes me sad. I wish I could go back and make myself do something, no matter what the consequences. Maybe it makes me heroic, because I keep trying to make up for it, but I don’t feel heroic. I feel like the coward who never left the station. A hero will never feel like a hero. If he does, he probably crossed the line to villain. Maybe that’s why I write, so my paper heroes can make up for my infinite failures.

How do we know the difference between a hero who only stumbled as he faced crisis and a villain who never gets up again? If he’s a hero then he becomes obsessed with righting that wrong. He can’t live with himself. He searches for a way to rise above the next time. A villain is the opposite. They are faced with unspeakable horrors and they can’t move forward. They begin to see life as unfair, as a war between disconnected people, with everyone fighting for a few scraps. They see the work of a malevolent universe, of a God who relishes our pain and suffering. They become obsessed with making someone, anyone, and everyone pay.

The fact is we can emphasize with both visions, if your character is well crafted. We’ve all done the right thing one time and let it slip another. We’ve all lied to others, to ourselves, to the world. In the end though, in fiction and in life, the hero finds a way to overcome. He finds a way to see beauty, to laugh, to keep going. A villain turns inward and then lashes out. He can’t see the difference between a flower and a knife. They are all the creation of a diabolical God.

A hero overcomes. A villain breaks down. Which are you?