We all have secrets – you do and I do. And let’s face it, we work hard to not let them get out. But at the same time, when we get a whiff of another person’s secret, it sparks our curiously. We are natural information-gatherers and so usually want to know what it is.
Altruistically, we think maybe we can help, but we also know that if their struggle is one we have as well, sharing what we each know can benefit us both. There’s an empathy component, too. We know it can be hard to share a secret, especially if guilt or shame is involved, but letting it out provides a release because the burden of holding it no longer belongs to just one person.
At their heart, secrets hide insecurities and vulnerabilities, common ground to us all. None of us are experts at navigating everything life throws our way, after all. So even when the other’s internal challenges is something beyond our own experience, there’s comfort in knowing everyone struggles, not just us.
Clearly there’s lots of psychology embedded in secrets, and so we can (and should!) put this to work in our story to draw readers in.
When something is hinted at in the story, readers sit up and pay attention. Partial information acts as a hook and they know something more is there. Curiosity triggered, they eagerly follow the clues a writer leaves until the shape of what’s being withheld is revealed.
In storytelling, secrets are addictive because they allow the reader to participate. They also act as a way to bring readers closer to a character because secrets shine a light on those inner vulnerabilities that people tend to hide. Readers understand the character’s reasons for holding back because they do the same. This shared behavior creates a bond where readers “get” the character in a meaningful way.
Pinpointing Your Character’s Secret
Have you thought about what secrets your protagonist might be harboring, and the price that comes with bearing them? Secrets are rarely good things, especially in fiction. In fact, they can be a rat’s nest of pain because often they are kept out fear of exploitation or judgement and very often at the heart of one lies the character’s Emotional Wound.
Here are some types of secrets to help you decide what might be motivating your character to keep one.
Secrets Involving Guilt:
There is a deep fear that, if a secret comes to light, one’s reputation and value among those one cares about will be diminished or even destroyed. Secrets that tie closely to guilt are ones where the character has done something that crosses moral lines. As author David Corbett states in The Art of Character, “guilt is between you and your conscience.” A few examples:
- Infidelity (cheating on a spouse or lover)
- Theft or destruction of another’s property
- Throwing someone “under the bus” to obtain an advantage or avoid consequences
- Aggressive or bullying behaviors that forces someone into submission or acquiescence
- Lying or deceit
Think your secret is tied to an Emotional Wound? Visit this database of Emotional Wounds to see if it fits.
Secrets Involving Shame:
When shame is involved, the worry that one’s secret will shatter the view others have about oneself is even more pronounced. Shame is not always logical or deserved. While it may be a result of an action or choice, it might also simply be the mistaken belief that one could or should have done something to avoid the eventual outcome. A few examples:
- Failing to achieve a goal or objective which impacts other people
- Failing another in their time of need
- Events that will cause humiliation if known (being forced to perform immoral acts during a college hazing, for example)
- Negative associations (being the child of a known serial killer; having past ties to a violent or disreputable organization, etc.)
- Past victimization, especially sexual in nature (a rape, for example)
Many secrets have elements of both guilt and shame because it is human nature to internalize and personalize situations even when it is underserved or inaccurate to do so. A rape victim may keep her abuse a secret out of shame for what was done to her, and guilt at believing (wrongly so) that she was somehow partially to blame because of something she did or didn’t do.
Secrets Involving Exploitation:
Some secrets are kept simply out of the worry that if found out, another might take advantage in some way. A few examples:
- Having a special power or exceptional talent (psychic abilities, super strength, etc.)
- Being a Person of Interest (having fame or power due to one’s own success, or by association, such as being the daughter of a political figure or well-connected oil tycoon)
- Making a discovery (an invention, scientific breakthrough, a new technology or process that will revolutionize, etc.) which others will covet and likely try to appropriate
Secrets out of Necessity:
Many times a character keeps secrets because they feel they must, not so much for themselves, but to protect others. The reason may also tie into one of the above factors, saving someone unnecessary pain, guilt or exposure. A few examples:
- Keeping the truth to oneself regarding an event because someone is too fragile to accept what happened, or bear personal responsibility if that is the case (and there is no reason to cause further pain)
- A family secret that is closely guarded for fear of exploitation or unfair persecution
- A tradition, piece of knowledge or practice that is safeguarded for privacy, to avoid exploitation, or to keep the information from being misused/misinterpreted or corrupted
- Keeping a secret because it belongs to another, and it is not one’s place to reveal it
- Being legally or ethically bound to keep a secret (like those kept between lawyers and clients, doctors and patients, a priest and parishioner, etc.)
When planning a secret, consider these three questions:
- Does this secret enhance the plot line, or distract from it?
- Does this secret align with the character’s moral code?
- Does this secret send a message about the character’s personality that meshes with how I want readers to think about him or her?
TIP: If you need more ideas for secrets, we’ve built a Character Secrets Generator at One Stop for Writers.
What’s your character’s big secret? Let me know in the comments.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.