Picking a Juicy Secret to Jazz Up Your Character

“Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart.” – Frank Warren

Secrets for Your CharacterSecrets are catalysts. They push people apart and bring them together. They intrigue; they add drama. They can be playful, depressing, or horrifying. They provide a window into your character’s psyche.

Not every character in your story will reveal a heart-breaking secret, because it would overload the story. But having a mix of big and little secrets will make the story more interesting.

Exclusive Bonus: Download The Brainstorm Spark: Character Secrets to get your brain-slush pumping out ideas. 😉

Of course, you have to make sure the reader believes that the secret is consistent with the character’s personality…

Believable Secrecy

There’s a spectrum of inborn privacy, and most people (and characters!) fall somewhere in the middle. But a few fall in the extremes.

A secretive person might be that way naturally, or it might be a learned trait. A naturally secretive character will be most comfortable when keeping things close to the chest. Part of any secretive character’s upheaval will probably stem from interpersonal conflicts over miscommunications or a lack of intimacy.

An open book might be seen as naïve or innocent. Or they might seem despicable because they have much to hide, but choose not to. Openness can be practiced. Ask an AA member.

While an open-book innocent might have trouble keeping an important secret, resulting in major inner conflict, a practiced open might struggle with the decision to keep an important secret, but it would probably be based on a fear of turning back to old secretive ways.

As I said, most characters will fall somewhere in the middle.

Some might feel secretive without really being secretive, while others might feel open when they’re not so open. Both of those could create interesting situations. Others will simply be unaware of how open or secretive they’re being.

Pro Tip: While you’re considering  believability, you might want to consider adding a symbol of the secret, be it a related item – obscure to those not in the know, or written proof like a journal. A representation of the secret reinforces its existence. (Thank you, Darcy Pattison.)

The character’s nature isn’t the only factor in a penchant for secrecy. What about “nurture”?

Environments that Encourage Secrecy

Competitive

Be it business or a reality show, open competition encourages secrecy. Any edge is guarded closely.

Unpredictable

Abusive or unstable situations can cause the victim to withdraw, hiding things to regain control over some portion of their life, or for fear of triggering an incident.

Even overprotective parents can be unpredictable in what they will disallow. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, eh?

Oppressive

This is larger and more ominous than a family situation. Think a culture of silence enforced by an oppressive government, with severe punishment for whistleblowers. The whole society becomes engulfed in secrecy. Propaganda machines cover up any whisper of unrest, and the people (let alone other countries) are left in the dark about the extent of the tyranny.

Secrecy thrives in any situation where distrust is rampant. Not all distrust qualifies, of course. Violated expectations, or a few white lies between a loving couple doesn’t mean that secrets will erupt. The emphasis is on rampant.

Secrets Come in Many Forms

Give Your Characters SecretsSecret is a cornerstone because it’s an easy, flexible way to create depth in your character. Use that flexibility to your advantage. (I know I missed some variables below. Educate me in the comments!) Here’s what I came up with:

How Tightly the Keeper Holds It
  • Tight. He’s fairly open, and determined not to tell or even let on. There’s some serious willpower behind it. Because of the conscious effort put into hiding it, there’s a chance that it’ll become an obsession. (More on that later.)
  • Effortlessly secure. He doesn’t have to put much thought into hiding it with skill. He’s Secretive, and though he cares about this secret, it’s not much different than everything else he keeps to himself.
  • Neutral. He doesn’t see any reason to tell.  It’s not a big deal in his eyes.
  • Loose. This one is probably playful or fun, like a surprise party.
  • Out of sight, out of mind. It’s forgotten until something triggers the memory.
Whose Secret Is It?
  • It belongs to the character.
  • It belongs to someone else; the character just knows it.
What Type of Secret It Is
  • Dark. This is generally a shameful or embarrassing secret, whether or not the character is the guilty party.
  • Strategic. Trade secrets, hidden agendas, and game plans fall in this category.
  • Inside. These are used as glue (Get it? Bonding.) within a group.
  • Entrusted. Someone trusted the character as a confidant, and he needs to live up to that trust.
  • Free. It doesn’t belong to him and can be disclosed without hesitation. (Unless he sees a strategic advantage.)
Who it’s Hidden From or Shared With
  • “Hidden from” can range from one person or group to everyone but the keeper himself. (Or it could just be forgotten. What a twist that could make.)
  • “Shared with” can be no one, one person, or a group. The fewer that know, the easier it is on the character. A rumor circulating that would reveal the secret if it reaches the wrong ears has the potential for some weighty tension.
What’s Being Hidden

Concerns, fears, or sadness over the meaning, purpose, direction or value of your life. Worries, anger, or sadness over some fractured or failed relationship with a friend, parent, family member, spouse or child. Some facet of yourself (some interest, trait, or behavior) that you’ve never disclosed to anyone because you fear that people will find it odd, sick, bizarre, shameful, or deviant. – Richard Beck

I highly recommend The Three Biggest Secrets (quoted above) as a resource if you’re looking for ideas. It goes into detail about subgroups of each of the three.

Whether it’s Relevant to the Story
  • Secrets demand attention. If it will only detract from the story, it’s best not to include it. I don’t mean useful distraction and literary sleight-of-hand. Any secret put to good use should be a candidate for staying. But if it’s trying to butt in where it doesn’t belong, cut it. – You might not know until after the first draft if it’s detracting from the story.
  • Alternatively, don’t give a character a secret you never mention, hint at, or reveal in the course of the story. It doesn’t do much for the story if the reader never hears of it. A series counts as an overarching story.
When it Originates
  • Before the story starts.
  • During the story. Do you show or hint at its conception?

Not all Secrets are Destructive

The broad use of the term “secret” can create a problem differentiating between secrecy and privacy. (Though Secretive characters will have problems differentiating, too.)

Some personal information isn’t harmful and doesn’t need to be shared. When it is, it’s a gift and it helps to form emotional intimacy. This often happens in the early stages of a romantic relationship. But when withheld, it’s not with the same effort and disquiet that accompanies real secrets.

Another example is a group of friends with an inside joke.

Private information that others are curious about can create a sense of mystery, though it doesn’t ever have to be revealed to all that are curious.

Specific Ideas and Examples

Elderly characters likely won’t want to give up independence or pride, so they might hide things.

Some characters will long for a lost love, even if they don’t dwell on it.

Secret relationships are an interesting possibility.  They don’t deepen like normal relationships, though they can be addictive due to the thrill of the forbidden.

A couple falling in love often has things that need to be revealed, but no time seems right.

Anytime your character lies, a secret is born. That is, unless the lie is a cover for an existing secret.

How to Choose a Secret

“That which is most personal is most general.” – Carl Rogers

What's Your Character Hiding?Don’t push to be unique. Every secret has been kept by hundreds of people in the past. There are no new secrets, not really.

Going through confession sites, it’s easy to start dismissing all but the darkest secrets as unworthy. But if you look closer, you can see the oh-so-personal pain, shame, and vulnerability that come with each.

Don’t dismiss a possible secret without first putting yourself solidly in the shoes of its keeper. Examine:

  • Possible motivations
  • Consequences for revealing it
  • Societal or  familial looks perceptions
  • The character’s openness factor (the more secretive, the smaller things he can hide)
  • And imagined shame.

Yes, we often feel shame where there should be none. There are many situations in which we would be thanked for our openness, and rewarded with more love, but we don’t realize it, fearing revulsion or horror. As long as you can nail the motivations and demonstrate them for the reader, no secret is too insignificant.

And don’t forget the other types be they happy, silly or mysterious. The motivations behind those are easier to sniff out. (Experimenting with Your Protagonist’s Personality has questions that should be answered before you settle on a secret.)

There’s a possibility that – seeing all the options laid out – you’ve realized that your character already had a secret. In that case, you won’t need inspiration, but how about guidance on how to handle the effects and maximize the story impact? Keep reading after the links…

Inspiration Resources

What’s your top secret on PsychologyToday

Character Secret Generator Reddit, what are some deep dark secrets your family members tried to hide from you, but you found out anyway.

38 Of The Most Shocking Secrets From 38 Strangers On The Internet

Confessions

Download The Brainstorm Spark: Character Secrets (Specially designed for brainstorming.)

The Effects

 “Secrets are powerful because they can control you. Very often, the problem with a secret is not the content of the secret itself, but what you must do to keep the secret information out of sight.” – Claudia Black, M.S.W., Ph.D.

You have a secret, so you lie, you sneak around, and you try not to think about it. Do you know what happens if I tell you not to think about a pink elephant? It pops into your head, and it’s the same anytime you try to avoid thinking about something. If a character is constantly trying not to think about the secret, it can become an obsession, coloring every thought. Fredric Neuman, M.D. gives some insight on how it affects the keeper specifically:

  • Any agitation is amplified because they can’t seek comfort without exposing themselves to awkward questions (even if those questions are only in the character’s mind).
  • Failures and limitations are blown out of proportion because there’s no moderation from outside sources.
  • Advice on personal (and possibly embarrassing) situations is passed up.

While there’s no direct link, secrets seem to increase anxiety, depression, body aches and pains, hypertension, influenza, and even cancer. The more traumatic the secret (and probably the longer it’s held), the worse the effects. (Source: Terri Briseno)

A secret also affects others, directly and indirectly. Relationships are strained, home environments are twisted, and everything becomes skewed. In short, miscommunications abound.

“Secrets take on a larger significance than they sometimes deserve, just because they are hidden.” – Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.

It’s easy to assume that something hidden was hidden for a reason, and that there might be other secrets hiding with it. That’s how secrets work, right? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. But that doesn’t change the interpretation.

If the keeper is extremely Open, but has forgotten to purposefully reveal something, the character who finds out might see it as an even larger issue than if the keeper was naturally Secretive.

Or they might interpret it to mean that a Secretive character is hiding even more and it’s a web to hide something nefarious. It can go either way.

Revealing Secrets for Maximum Impact

PIck a Juicy Secret for Your Character (and Get the Most Out of It!) A secret is valuable in part because it can ignite the tension into full-blown conflict. Aim for the opposite of what would make the smoothest transition for all parties.

We want it uncomfortable. We want it messy.

Never let a character off easy by revealing a secret the painless way, unless you’re using it as a foil for another character that doesn’t. (Which is a striking use of a secret.)

Mix and match:  (Using masculine for the keeper and feminine for the one learning of the secret.)

  • Let her learn about it secondhand. The explosion can be quite impressive. — The average real-life confidant tells approximately two people. The more traumatic the secret, the more people are told.
  • Give her negative opinions that would cause her to reject the secret-keeper when the secret is revealed. You would probably want to show this in some way earlier in the story. For the most tension: before the secret is revealed to the reader, or created.
  • Have him give too many details. This can overwhelm the other character, or it can be the jumping point for a believable rumor later.
  • Have her ask inappropriate questions, making the character unsure about the decision to share.
  • To shunt her emotional growth for the long-term, reveal something during a transition period in her life. — In real life, it’s tempting to reveal a secret during transitions because we think that it will make the transition easier… basing a transition on truth is the best way, right? Well, a transition needs solid emotional ground to begin from. So a secret revealed can delay the transition while the person adjusts to the new reality. Unfortunately, once a transition, especially a major transition, has been put off, it’s hard to work up to it again.

Finally, you can have him hold it through massive amounts of inner conflict until… You use it as the plot twist, the mid-point shift, or the climax. Big secrets can be the heart of a story, or they can steal the show.

Play it up, and let the drama unfold.

When Should Your Reader Figure It Out?

Reader knowledge depends on the secret, the keeping character, the POV character, narrative distance, and the tone/style of book. In other words, there isn’t an absolute answer.

A secret shared creates a connection, whether it’s between characters or with the reader. Tweet it!

A POV character with a secret should let on sooner rather than later, or it feels coy.

Dark secrets should be revealed to the reader with more care than other secrets, especially if you’re trying to keep the character likeable. Set up reader-character empathy first, but still get to the secret as quickly as possible.  You don’t want the reader to feel betrayed by a character they thought they knew. Or you can let foreshadowing give them a clue so it doesn’t come as a surprise.

If it’s not dark, don’t worry about setting up empathy first. Just make sure the reader reveal works in the context of the story.

If you want to have an unreliable narrator, make sure he has a reason. Maybe there’s a telepathic mage nearby so he’s purposefully fighting to not think about it, though that might backfire. Or maybe he’s just insane.

If the narrator is unreliable or doesn’t know the secret, you can make the reader-reveal an integral part of the plot… Using the it as the plot twist, mid-point shift, or climax can have a whopping impact. Leave the reader stunned while the whole story moves in an unexpected but believable direction, and you have the potential to be remembered for a long while.

Making Your Character a Tough Nut to Crack

Just in case you want a character to – Believably! – keep something to himself  with no other character having a clue … First give him low “Openness.” Then have him follow this advice:

“If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness.” – Alexander Smith

Layer thoughts on top of it, like the motivation for withholding the information. Don’t hint that he’s holding something back. Except to the reader, if appropriate. Tell as much truth as possible. Try to put it out of mind. This might be hard to show, unless you say something about tucking it away in a corner of his mind. Which sounds cliche. (Challenge: Come up with a new way to handle this and let me know what you did in a comment.)

No More Mediocre Secrets

I hope you’re inspired to throw your character into a tangle created or magnified by a secret. There are so many options, and a secret doesn’t have to be big to have a big impact. You can quickly harness it for easy tension and conflict.

How have you used secrets in the past? Did you draw it out for a big reveal at the climax?

Or did you let the cat out of the bag early and force the character to spend the rest of the time trying to pick up the pieces?

Find your character’s secrets with a tool specially designed to open up the possibilities while limiting overwhelm…

Grab Your Brainstorm Spark and jazz up your story tonight. It’s that good.

Secret is one of The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.

Comments

  1. I think what most fictional writers need to master is character development. You don’t see fleshed out characters a lot.

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    • Yep. That’s why I’m doing this series. No single aspect rounds out a character, but these are the ones that have a big impact right off the bat. The trick is in controlling the subtext and consistency. :)

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  2. Belated thanks for the shout-out–how did I miss your post before? This is a fabulous discussion of how secrets can affect your characters. I really like the idea of finding ways to represent your character’s secret…I wonder if a mysterious action would also fit the bill, such as a character’s tendency to disappear without explanation. Hmm, I can see this find its way into my WIP!

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    • Thanks and you’re welcome, Cheryl. :)
      That reminds me of a secret in one of my favorite books. He thinks she’s using a mind control device on him and he resents her for it, but she’s not. (Yes, I’m quite liberal in my use of the word secret. It makes things so much more interesting.) And the things he does are so ambiguous but in retrospect they make perfect sense. It was purely in her POV, and with the understandable misunderstandings that come from the whole situation make it one of my favorites.

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  3. I have lots of ‘history’, and what I learnt to do early on in life is be extra frank with people to throw them off the scent. People see me as a very open person, when actually, my husband will often say I’m the most private person he knows. I tell people lots of things that don’t matter- even some things that are quite private, like, bits of frank dating history, and the result is that they have no idea how much i’m hiding. Hope that helps someone who’s writing! 😉

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    • Lazuli Tadomi says:

      Actually, letting people know the ‘Not so important’ stuff seems like a good way to trick people into thinking your very open, even when your not. This is a great tactic for those who want to keep up an appearance without their secret tainting it. I want to know if it’s okay for me to use this tactic for one of my characters. 😃

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  4. Nancy Goldberg Levine says:

    In my latest short story the heroine has two things she wants to hide–her scars from an injury in high school, and a secret passion. These have to be revealed fairly quickly because of the length of my story. I think it turned out pretty well, but we’ll see. I’m also a private person–there are things I don’t want people to know. I have a friend who is the same way. Thanks for the blog–it brought things into focus for when I write other stories about characters having secrets.

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  5. Ok, question… What category would you put a secret kept by fear in? For example, in one of my stories, a secondary character (very important to the story) has inoperable cancer. One other member of his team knows, but because of a past trauma he fears rejection and transparency, which drives his team apart considerably. I’m not sure which category that would fall under. It’s not necessarily dark in nature, but it doesn’t seem to fit the other categories well either.

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    • You know what the secret is, so you don’t need to categorize it. Those lists are to help find or concoct secrets. You’re doing great, keep it up. 😀

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  6. This is definitely helpful, I try to give all my characters secrets. There’s one point I don’t agree with though, I think you SHOULD give characters secrets that you don’t reveal in the story. It might not help the plot or a sub-plot, but it’ll make your characters seem more realistic, because really to make a story come alive you need to add details that in the actual writing you’ll never mention.

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    • I get where you’re coming from, but there’s a difference between details and secrets. It’s absolutely true that unrevealed details can come across in the writing, adding depth and subtext. However, approaching it from the angle you introduce, I would define a secret as something that is either actively hinted at or will create a twist for the reader. Secrets beget curiosity, and in most cases if you don’t satisfy that curiosity at some point, your reader is going to feel gypped. :)

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  7. Berta Clase says:

    Thank you. I am new to this game, but I always wanted to write. This useful advice really opens up so many possibilities. I am grateful.

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  8. Victoria Phillips says:

    I loved your post! I always have had one problem with writing secrets in my first book, though. The story is told in first person narrative, in two alternating timelines. They are four years apart, one focusing on when the narrator and her friend were still friends, and the other when they’re not. Why they aren’t friends anymore is one of the big spoilers of the book, which is revealed at the end of the eairlier timeline, and I was wondering how I could write that where the narrator doesn’t reveal what happened to them in the earlier timeline in the later timeline. You know, because I don’t want it to seem like I’m keeping the secret from the reader for the purpose of a more powerful climax (which, I am, but still). Also it’s for suspense and mystery. I don’t know if what I just said makes any sense or not, but all I’m really saying is that I don’t know how the narrator will keep that secret for that long in the book. You know, because she has to address that she and her friend broke apart for SOME reason at SOME point in the story. But how does she do that without revealing what happened? If you would reply, that would be beyond great, I have no one else with writing experience to ask.
    xoxo Victoria

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  9. This is a very insightful post. You mentioned the difficulty of writing a character who keeps his secret tucked away even from himself, for which I do have a few ideas. One way I have approached this is to have his thoughts start to drift toward the secret, hinting to the reader that something is there…then abruptly fix all his attention on something else. The something else is usually a sensory observation, either interesting or unimportant. The reader is not given a reason for this sudden change. This gives an impression that the character, consciously or unconsciously, is avoiding some skeleton in his closet.

    Also, I’m curious…is it too much for a main character to have more than one secret? My current MC has three: a dark secret that is his own and one that is the antagonist’s (he doesn’t know the contents of the second, but he knows it exists), as well as an emotional struggle with which he is reluctantly secretive (he desperately wants to tell someone but is unsure of whom he can trust to understand). The secrets which belong to him can both be traced to his childhood backstory, so in that sense they are related. But they still stand somewhat on their own. So, have I created an intriguing and complex character or just a big mess?

    Thanks again for the post. Your work is a gold mine for the aspiring novelist!

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    • I prefer defense mechanisms, as it’s how the mind really works, and they’re generally much subtler. The key is to make the defense mechanism look like it’s just part of the personality. Here’s a list of them: http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-defense-mechanisms/

      Generally, the more secrets a character has, the better. The majority should be conscious. I would add a few more from backstory and within the timeline, with a mix of small and large, serious and not.

      Thanks for speaking up!

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  10. Beth Estrada says:

    Thank you for posting, this was helpful!

    I just have a question–in a story I’m working on, my character has a secret that I’m going to use as a plot twist, but instead of having him telling the other characters, I’m going to tell the readers through a flashback which happens just after a cliffhanger at the climax and shows his character in different light. Would you call that an inadvisable way to incorporate a secret? I worry sometimes that flashbacks are susceptible to corniness if they’re not handled well.

    Thanks!

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    • Hi, Beth. Thank you for commenting!
      It completely depends how it’s done. I would focus on the shape of the story first… if that’s the best way to reveal the secret to the reader, do it that way. Then after you’ve revised to the best of your ability, get an editor on board. Always put the shape of the story first, without worrying about your ability to handle something. You grow by pushing yourself and getting feedback from those more advanced. So there’s never any reason to shy away from something that truly fits a story. =)

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