Being able to write realistic, consistent, multi-dimensional characters is vital to gaining reader interest. Doing so first requires we know a lot about who our characters are—you know, the obvious stuff: positive and negative traits, behavioral habits, desires, goals, and the like. But it’s not always the obvious parts of characterization that create the most intrigue. What about the things your character is hiding?
Everyone hides. We hide the goals we know are wrong for us, opinions that may turn others against us, or feelings and desires that make us feel vulnerable—basically anything with the potential for rejection or shame.
The same should be true for our characters. When characters are cagey out of a need to protect themselves from emotional harm, readers understand that. It makes the characters more authentic and can pique your readers’ interest as they try to figure out the secret or worry over what will happen when it comes to light.
7 Things Your Character Is Hiding
To add this layer of depth to your characters, you first need to know what’s taboo in their minds—not only what they’re hiding, but why. Here are some common things your character may feel compelled to conceal from others.
Desires are an important part of who your characters are. These desires drive their actions and decisions in the story. While these wants are often transparent, there are situations in which the character may not feel comfortable sharing them.
Maybe she’s secretly pining for her sister’s ex, or she longs for a career forbidden by her parents, or she wants to fight her boss’s unethical behavior but is afraid of losing her job.
Forbidden or dangerous desires can add an element of risk, upping the stakes for the character and making things more interesting for readers.
Everyone has fears. Many of those fears are perfectly acceptable, which makes it safe for us to share them. It’s the ones that make us feel weak or lessen us in the eyes of others that we keep in the dark.
Think about really debilitating fears, such as being afraid of a certain people group, physical intimacy, or of leaving one’s house.
Fears like these should always come from somewhere—maybe from a wounding event or negative past influencers. Make sure there’s a good reason for whatever your character is afraid of.
3. Negative Past Events
Speaking of wounding events, we each have defining moments from the past that we’re reluctant to share with others or even acknowledge ourselves.
What’s something that could have happened to your characters that they’ll go to great lengths to keep hidden? What failures or humiliating moments might they alter in their own memories to keep from facing them?
Wounds are formative on many levels, so it’s important to figure out what those are and how they may impact the character.
4. Flaws and Insecurities
Being flawed is part of the human experience. There are things about ourselves we don’t want to examine too closely and which we definitely don’t want others to know about.
For characters, these flaws often manifest as insecurities or negative traits (such as being weak-willed, unintelligent, or vain). Whether these weaknesses are real or only perceived, characters will try to downplay them.
But part of their journey to fulfillment includes facing the truth and acknowledging the part their flaws play in holding them back. To write their complete journeys, your need to know what weaknesses they’re keeping under wraps.
5. Unhealthy Behaviors
Sometimes characters exhibit behaviors or habits they know aren’t good for them. Maybe these behaviors stem from a wounding event or an unhealthy desire. Maybe they really want to change, but they don’t know how.
Whether it’s an unhealthy relationship with food, a gambling addiction, or a compulsion to self-harm, they’ll expend a lot of energy to keep these behaviors hidden.
Revealing these behaviors to readers, while hiding them from other characters, is a great way to remain true to the human experience while also building reader interest.
6. Uncomfortable Emotions
While it’s healthy to embrace and express a range of emotions, characters are not always comfortable with all the feelings. This may occur with emotions that are tied to a negative event from the past. It may be an emotion that makes the character feel vulnerable or is culturally unacceptable.
The character will want to mask any uncomfortable emotions, often disguising them as something else: embarrassment is replaced with self-deprecation, or fear manifests as anger. This duality of emotion is important because it humanizes characters for readers and adds a layer of authenticity that might otherwise be missing.
7. Opinions and Ideas
Everyone wants to be liked. To gain the respect of others, we often go so far as to sacrifice honesty.
If an opinion isn’t popular, your characters may keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas others won’t appreciate, they won’t share them—or they’ll get the ideas out there in a way that allows them to avoid taking ownership.
Peer acceptance is important to everyone; that need, and the secrets that accompany it, is something that every reader will be able to relate to.
Deception—whether deliberate or subconscious—is part of the human experience. When your characters hide things from others, they become deeper and more layered and avoid turning into clichés. They’ll come across as more authentic to readers, who will be able to relate to them. It also can build empathy as readers see the character headed the wrong direction. A lot of good can result from taking the time to discover what your characters are hiding. So put on your Nosy Pants and get to work!
One Stop For Writers can help you dig deeper
Your character has reasons for hiding what they do, so it’s important to know what those are. Uncover your character’s emotional wounds, secrets, personality traits, motivations and more using this powerful thesaurus database and character builder tool. Free trial available.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.