“Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart.” – Frank Warren
Secrets 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.
Of course, you have to make sure the reader believes that the secret is consistent with the character’s personality…
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
Be it business or a reality show, open competition encourages secrecy. Any edge is guarded closely.
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?
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
Secret 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.
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
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…
What’s your top secret on PsychologyToday
Download The Brainstorm Spark: Character Secrets (Specially designed for brainstorming.)
“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
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