Your Character has a Secret

Psst! Guess what? Your main character has a secret! In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that all of your characters have something that they are keeping to themselves. Something they desperately want to keep hidden. Something they don’t want any of the other characters to know about.

Your task is to discover what each character’s secret is.

You don’t necessarily have to get your characters to tell everyone else their secrets. In fact, it may be best if they don’t tell anyone at all. (In my experience, the most interesting characters—living or fictional—have a certain quality of mystery to them.) So let them keep their secrets from each other if that serves your story best, but don’t let them keep their secrets from you. Because I’m fairly certain everyone has a secret, and when you find out what that secret is, you learn an awful lot about what makes that person tick.

For example…

When I was in college, I developed a close friendship with a girl who lived in my dorm. Everything about my friend was upbeat—she was energetic, optimistic, creative. However, she was susceptible to occasional mood swings, and when her mood changed, she went dark—her fire went out. One afternoon, over french fries in the student union, she opened up to me and unexpectedly told me one of her secrets. Her story went like this:

When she was in her teens, she had thought her parents’ marriage was strong, until one day, right before she left for college, her father revealed to her that he was in love with another woman and would soon be leaving her mom. He told her not to worry about how her mother would take it, because they had both been unhappy together for a long time and had simply been keeping up appearances. Needless to say, my friend was shocked, but she tried not to worry about how her family was about to change. She left for college, and waited for the official word from her parents that their marriage was over. Instead, she received quite different news. One day her mother contacted her and told her she would need to come home. Her father had unexpectedly passed away as the result of a massive heart attack. As she watched her mother mourn her father, she saw no hint that her mother had been in a loveless marriage.

She never told her mother about the conversation she had had with her father. It became her secret.

Do you have secrets? Do you have pieces of your true self that are far too personal to share? I know I do. I know my characters do too.

How can discovering your characters’ secrets improve your writing?

When you know a person’s secret, you have a better understanding of their fears, their insecurities, their dreams, and their values. Even small secrets can add a layer of complexity and help to transform a flat character into someone more multi-dimensional.

Let me clarify here that I’m not referring to the kind of secret that is eventually revealed and forms a key turning point in the story—the kind of secret we addressed in October’s Last Call post, here. That kind of secret is a matter of plot, and I will leave that for another post. What I am referring to is the kind of secret that informs a character’s sense of self and of the world around her.

Imagine you are writing a story set in a high school, and your main character is the president of the student body. She was elected to that office long before the opening of your novel, and you never directly refer to her victory, but it’s clear that being elected president is your character’s crowning and defining achievement. Now imagine she has a secret. Imagine that the teacher who oversees student government had revealed to her that two homerooms were mistakenly left out of the count. The discovery was made too late—a full week after the election—so he had decided it would be best to just leave well-enough alone, and he had tossed the ballots, uncounted. How would this impact your character’s self-image? Her sense of her own worth? How would this secret inform the choices she made? You will probably never reveal this secret about your character, but knowing the truth will influence your view of your character and how she interacts with the world of your story.

Of course, the secret doesn’t have to be dark. It can be something very positive, yet highly personal. For instance, I once wrote about a character who was an attorney. Although it goes unmentioned in the story, this character had a secret. Her mother had wanted to go to law school, but had been forced to withdraw because her family hadn’t had the resources to send her. My character never knew this about her mother, until the day she passed the bar exam and her mother told her how she had fulfilled her mother’s own dream that dated back to before the character had been born. This secret that had belonged to my character’s mother alone now belonged to the both of them. It influenced my character’s decisions about the kind of law she would practice and how she approached her career. Yet it remained a secret between her and her mother. It was never referred to in the story.

So talk to your characters. Get them to tell you their secrets. Then put your characters at crossroads and see how their secrets influence the choices they make.


13 Responses to Your Character has a Secret

  1. Loie Nov 12 2012 at 9:03 am #

    I really like this post! Great way to think about giving complexity and realness to the character. Will have to think more about my MC of my Nanowrimo WIP. Great post 🙂 !!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Nov 12 2012 at 11:03 am #

      Hi Loie! I’m so glad you found the post helpful. Best of luck with NaNo!

  2. Edith Nov 12 2012 at 11:00 am #

    What an amazing post! But it is the xamples you furnish us with to flesh out your thesis which really makes this post so memorable. I”ve learned a very valauable lesson today from you. Thank you!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Nov 12 2012 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Edith, Thanks for the comment. I’m a big believer in examples. 🙂 Good luck coaxing the secrets out of your characters!

  3. Sooz Nov 12 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Very cool post, Julie! It’s a topic I’ve never really thought about before…but now that I DO think about it, my characters do all have their little secrets. Bits of backstory that maybe never gets mentioned in the story or actual secrets the characters hold close.

    Also wow, your poor, poor college friend!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Nov 12 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      Hey S0oz! I think I first encountered this concept of characters having secrets in an acting class. I love it, because I think the secrets we keep influence our choices quite a bit. And YES! My poor friend! Can you imagine walking around under the weight of that secret? Thanks for commenting!

  4. Amy Jane Nov 12 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    This is a useful concept, and not one I think of automatically b/c I don’t have the kind of secrets you describe– the keep-it-all-to-yourself kind. I’m an external processer, so every time I “discover” a secret that impacts me deeply as you describe, I share it with one of my “secret keepers.” These two or three people have helped many years to carry loads I don’t think I could carry on my own.

    Maybe what I hear you describing aren’t so much personal secrets (as opposed to plot-driving secrets) as they are shared secrets.

    That is, in every example, a shared secret changed something. It shifted the relationship. Changed motivation/reactions, yes, but that was predicated on the relationship that existed. I could even see the not-telling-at-all being about relationship– either that there was no one close enough to trust, or a war with self (one’s relationship with self still being a relationship…)

    I’ll definitely be considering this concept further.

    • Juliesh Nov 12 2012 at 1:59 pm #

      Hi Amy! Wow, I really like the way you thought through the next level of what the secret-sharing says about the relationships! As a side note, I think it’s great that you have your “secret keepers.” 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  5. Hamed May 17 2013 at 8:54 am #

    I’m going to read this post at least another round. It was so new and refreshing.
    I’d never thought of secrets as ingredients of making a character . As a mater of fact I always thought a character or at least the protagonist should be describe thoroughly. Now I can sleep peacefully thinking that I’ve learnt something new today.

    Thank you , agian.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 17 2013 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Hamed! I’m so glad to know you got something out of this post! I do think the protagonist needs to be described thoroughly, but I also know that everyone has something they keep to themselves, and that sense of mystery is something that will exist within even the most thoroughly described character. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  6. Jean Brunson Nov 4 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    I loved this blog, especially the part about the characters having a secret the reader never knows. It must be fun planning those secrets and yet keeping them secret. The book I am writing starts with the revelation of a secret even the secret holder did not know. I hope it is a successful as your writing.

  7. Mohammad Dec 25 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    Thank you for this very insightful post,
    I think I will add to my characters plan worksheet – in addition to their various attributes – a column for Character’s Secret. Yet, I believe if a character were to have a secret, as a writer I would have to (1) gradually expose that secret and (2) link it to the plot, being mysterious is very attractive to a reader, but the reader would expect some sort of a relation to the plot. Is that right?

  8. karen Hallam Jan 31 2017 at 11:35 am #

    Okay, so that secret gave me the biggest chill bumps. Heartbreaking. A wonderful and helpful post. Thank you!

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