Psst...Does Your Character Have a Secret?
Secrets. They’re the lifeblood of any relationship. If you aren’t keeping at least a few secrets from your friends and loved ones, are you really living? Okay, maybe not.
Secrets in real life can be a little tricky—we all have them—but they have a way of blowing up in our faces, depending on how big they are.
Your characters are really no different. Only when you’re keeping secrets in fiction, you can make them even darker and deeper than any you might ever have in real life. (Hopefully, I don’t really know your life, so maybe not.)
Secrets might not be something you’ve specifically thought about when you’re drafting a story. They’re the kind of thing that often happen organically, but you can actually make use of character secrets to make your stories better. Adding them with intention can help increase tension, make twists hit that much harder, and keep your reader engaged.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- How secrets make your story better
- Tips for writing character secrets
- Character secrets born out of guilt, shame, exploitation, and necessity
How Secrets Make Your Story Better
Let’s talk a bit more about how secrets can help make your story even better.
Adds depth and complexity: When a character has a secret, it adds an extra layer of complexity to their personality, goals, and motivations. It can help make them more interesting and help explain why they behave the way they do. And make the choices they make. You can also show how your character reacts to keeping this secret. Does it make them ill knowing about it? Or do they enjoy knowing something no one else does?
Increases tension and conflict: Secrets are a great way to build tension and conflict in a story. For example, if a character is keeping a secret that might harm someone else, the tension can build as the reader wonders when and how the secret will be revealed. You can also use the secret to show your character’s inner conflict.
Provides opportunities for character growth: Secrets can also provide opportunities for characters to grow and change throughout the story. For example, if your character is keeping a secret then at some point they’re going to have to come to terms with the consequences, forcing their personal growth or decline, depending on the story you’re writing.
Creates reader engagement: You can make use of secrets in different ways to engage your reader. Maybe the reader knows the secret along with the main character. Maybe it’s a secret that you’re keeping from even the reader in the case of an unreliable narrator.
Tips for Writing Character Secrets
If you’re going to include secrets in your story, then here are a few things to keep in mind.
Start small: Before you delve into big, dramatic secrets, consider starting with smaller, more personal secrets your characters may keep. These secrets can reveal something about your character's personality, motivations, or past experiences.
Make them relevant: Secrets are only effective if they are relevant to the story. When choosing secrets for your characters, think about how they impact the plot and the character's relationships with other characters.
Consider the consequences: Secrets always have consequences, both for the character keeping the secret and for those around them. When you're crafting a secret for your character, consider the potential fallout and how it affects the character, the story, and your eventual ending.
Give them layers: The best characters are multi-dimensional. Consider giving your characters secrets that reveal different aspects of their personality and backstory, adding depth and complexity. And don’t forget that secrets and lies often snowball from something small into something larger and larger until your character can no longer control them.
Reveal them gradually: Feed information slowly, either through the character's actions or through flashbacks and dialogue. By slowly revealing pieces of the secret, you keep the reader flipping those pages and wondering what happens next.
Use the right timing: Timing is crucial when it comes to revealing secrets. Consider when the right moment is to reveal each secret and how it will impact the story and the characters involved. Then consider how the consequences of each reveal affects future events in the story.
Character Secrets Born From Guilt
There are a few different types of character secrets you can consider for your story. The first type we’ll look at is guilt.
Guilt is a powerful emotion that can consume a person. When a character is keeping a secret rooted in guilt, it adds an emotional weight and is a great way to show inner conflict.
Using guilt-driven secrets can help add an element of morality to your story. Since guilt often stems from the conflict between right and wrong, you can use them to make a statement or send a message with your story, which might lead to thought-provoking discussions from your readers.
Famous Examples of Guilty Secrets
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Jay Gatsby is keeping a secret about his past and the source of his wealth. He’s haunted by guilt over his past actions and is desperate to win back the love of his former flame, Daisy.
- The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris - Clarice Starling is a young FBI agent tasked with catching a serial killer. Along the way, she discovers a dark secret about her own past that has been haunting her, driving her to seek justice for the victims.
- Breaking Bad - Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking and selling meth to provide for his family after he is diagnosed with cancer. As his empire grows, he is plagued by guilt over the harm he’s causing to those around him.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan - Briony Tallis is a young girl who accuses her sister's lover of a crime he didn't commit. As she grows older, she’s haunted by guilt over the harm she caused and spends her life trying to atone for her actions.
- The Usual Suspects - Verbal Kint is a small-time con artist who’s the only survivor of a massacre on a boat. He is keeping a dark secret about his involvement in the massacre and the true identity of the mastermind behind the operation.
Ideas You Can Use
Here are some ideas for guilty secrets you can incorporate into your own story.
Include a character that:
- is responsible for a hit-and-run accident and is hiding the truth from the authorities and their loved ones.
- stole money from their employer and is haunted by guilt over their actions.
- is involved in a cover-up of a workplace accident and is struggling with guilt over their inaction.
- betrayed a close friend and is struggling with guilt over their actions.
- is involved in a violent crime in their youth and is haunted by guilt over their past actions.
- cheated on their partner and is struggling with guilt over their infidelity.
- helped cover up a loved one's wrongdoing and is struggling with guilt over their actions.
- neglected a loved one during a time of need and is struggling with guilt over their inaction.
- lied under oath in a court case and is struggling with guilt over their false testimony.
- turned a blind eye to abuse or mistreatment of others and is struggling with guilt over their inaction.
Character Secrets Born From Shame
Shame is a very heavy emotion and can weigh on a character, causing them to feel like they’re carrying a large burden. Your character might struggle with feelings of worthlessness and guilt, which can make their journey towards redemption or acceptance all the more poignant.
Famous Examples of Shameful Secrets
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - Elizabeth Bennet is hiding her growing affection for Mr. Darcy, feeling ashamed of her lower social status and fearing rejection from her family and society.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Scout Finch's father, Atticus, is hiding his knowledge of a family secret that would bring shame to their community.
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Hester Prynne is hiding the identity of the father of her child and is ashamed of her past actions.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - Catherine Earnshaw is hiding her true feelings for Heathcliff, feeling ashamed of her love for a person of lower social standing.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - Dorian Gray is hiding the portrait that reveals his true self, feeling ashamed of his actions and the physical manifestation of his inner corruption.
Ideas For You to Use
In your story, you can include a character that:
- is involved in a scandal at work and is hiding the truth from their colleagues and loved ones.
- is addicted to drugs or alcohol and is hiding their history of substance abuse.
- had an affair and is hiding the truth from their partner.
- was bullied in the past and is hiding their history of abuse.
- was involved in a crime and is hiding their past from the authorities and their loved ones.
- had a child out of wedlock and is hiding their history of single parenthood.
- was fired from a job and is hiding the reason for their termination.
- has a chronic illness and is hiding their condition from others.
- is struggling with their sexual identity and is hiding the truth from their family and friends.
- has a history of mental health problems and is hiding their past from others.
Character Secrets Born From Exploitation
Secrets driven by exploitation create tension and conflict in a character's as they struggle to maintain their sense of self and face the consequences of their actions. Much like the types of secrets above, you can use these to add tension as the character overcomes and confronts the circumstances of these secrets, whether they are the one being exploited or the ones doing the exploiting.
If they’re the character who is exploiting another, there’s an added layer of complexity to the story since there are other people directly involved and the power imbalance will create another layer of nuance to your story.
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo - The Corleone family is hiding their involvement in organized crime and the exploitation of their power and influence.
- The Social Network - Mark Zuckerberg is hiding the true origin of Facebook and the exploitation of his friends and business partners.
- The Wolf of Wall Street - Jordan Belfort is hiding his illegal activities and exploitation of his clients in his role as a stockbroker.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Mikael Blomkvist is investigating a wealthy family's dark secret of exploitation and abuse.
- The Big Short - Michael Burry is hiding his knowledge of the housing market crash and his exploitation of the system for personal gain.
Ideas You Can Use
Some ideas for your story are listed below. You can include a character who is:
- exploited in their childhood and is hiding the truth from their family and friends.
- exploited in their workplace and is hiding the truth from their colleagues and superiors.
- exploited by a romantic partner and is hiding the truth from friends and family.
- exploited by a criminal organization and is hiding the truth from the authorities.
- exploited by a religious group and is hiding the truth from those around them.
- exploited by a government organization and is hiding the truth from their family.
- exploited in a foreign country and is hiding the truth from others.
- exploited by a sports team or organization and is hiding the truth from their parents.
- exploited by a charity or non-profit organization and is hiding the truth from the community.
- exploited by a corporation and is hiding the truth from their co-workers.
Character Secrets Born From Necessity
Secrets created out of necessity are used to protect someone or something and might include things like information related to national security, trade secrets, medical records, and other sensitive information that would cause harm if anyone found out. Forcing your character to keep secrets out of necessity can lead to all types of conflict as they grapple with the consequences of their knowledge.
Keeping the secret to protect someone else or if they’re protecting themselves can lead to different types of conflict and even guilt or shame. (You can see how secrets all snowball together.)
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - Katniss Everdeen is hiding her true feelings for Peeta Mellark in order to survive the Hunger Games and protect those she loves.
- The Shawshank Redemption - Andy Dufresne is hiding his knowledge of his wife's murder and his true identity in order to survive and eventually escape from prison.
- The Departed - Billy Costigan is hiding his true identity as an undercover cop in order to infiltrate the criminal organization he is investigating.
- Schindler's List - Oskar Schindler is hiding his efforts to save Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and the sacrifices he must make to protect them.
- The Imitation Game - Alan Turing is hiding his homosexuality in order to protect himself and his work cracking the German Enigma code during World War II.
- The Green Mile - John Coffey is hiding his supernatural abilities in order to protect himself from being executed for a crime he didn't commit.
Ideas You Can Use
Add some secrets formed by necessity by adding a character who hides:
- their identity to protect themselves or someone else.
- a crime they committed or witnessed out of fear of the consequences.
- their medical condition from their family or employer.
- their financial situation from their loved ones to avoid being a burden.
- their sexuality from their conservative family or community.
- their true beliefs or political affiliations to protect their job or relationships.
- their relationship with someone to avoid discrimination or judgment.
- their addiction or substance abuse problem from their loved ones.
- their knowledge of a dangerous situation to protect someone they love.
- their abilities or knowledge to keep themselves from being persecuted.
Now that you’re dreaming up all kinds of juicy secrets for your characters, you’ll want to keep track of all those threads lest they get too tangled to follow. With that in mind, Dabble Writer is a perfect tool to take down notes about your characters and every one of their secrets with secrets within secrets (really, there is no limit here).
You can try it free for 14-days right now and that’s no secret. (Oof, that was terrible. But I’m leaving it.)
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