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.
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.