On Writing: Character Development — Secret, Wall, Loss, Desire


I’ll start with the usual MW caveat, though I wonder if I even need to bother.  In talking about any aspect of writing we have to remember that there is no single right way to do anything.  This is particularly important to remember when it comes to character work, since this often tends to be one of the more idiosyncratic aspects of writing a book or story.

I have written before about developing characters and doing the background work that I find necessary to make them alive for me as I write.  You might want to check out this post.  And maybe this one, too.  I know as well that others have written extensively about character in this space, and those posts are worth re-reading, too.  Character is, for me at least, the most important part of everything I write; it is THE critical factor in whether or not I enjoy the books and stories I read.  I don’t think you can think about this stuff too much.

And so, I ‘ve been thinking about character in a slightly different light for the past few days, and I thought I would share.  It seems to me that most effective, memorable characters share certain attributes that lend drama and purpose to the narratives of which they’re a part.  In the briefest, simplest terms, those attributes are:  Secret, Wall, Loss, Desire.  Pretty vague, I know.  Let me explain, and then I’ll give examples.

A secret is just what it sounds like.  There is something in the character’s life story or present circumstance that s/he cannot share because s/he believes (rightly or wrongly) that revealing this secret will do great harm.  Or, it may be that the secret is being kept from the character, and its revelation to him or her is a major plot point (think King Arthur or Luke Skywalker). Sometimes the character begins the story with the secret already in place; at other times the secret develops as the story does.  But more often than not, it’s there, and it’s a significant factor in the narrative.

I use the term wall as shorthand for some situation or set of circumstances that sets the character apart from those around him.  Again, this can be in place as the story begins, or it can develop in the story.  I just finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which the lead character, Richard Mayhew, starts out with a fairly mundane life.  But in the course of the early chapters, he does something that makes him an outcast, invisible (literally and figuratively) to those who used to be his friends and colleagues.  The wall might not always be that dramatic and literal, but more often than not, it’s there.  (Again, examples to follow.)

Often a contributing factor to either the secret or the wall is some form of deep, painful loss or regret.  Many lead characters carry scars that influence their decisions, their emotions, their ability to overcome the obstacles thrown in their path during the course of the stories of which they’re a part.

And more often than not, these characters are driven by deep-seated desire for something that has been missing from their lives.  Yes, they might have wants and needs that are simpler, more superficial — they might want to find a treasure, or defeat a rival or nemesis.  They might want to get the girl, or the guy (or both — I’m open-minded).  But they also want something bigger, deeper, more fundamental to who and what they wish to be by the time we reach the end of their adventures.

Secret, wall, loss, desire.  Let’s see if this really holds up.

The vast majority of us have read the Harry Potter books, and Harry is a perfect example of a hero who fits this framework.  In the first book, Harry’s secret is fairly obvious, and it fits in the King Arthur/Luke Skywalker model.  He’s a wizard (“A thumpin’ good’un!”), but he doesn’t know it, at least not at first.  In subsequent volumes, his secret changes — he’s hearing odd voices that speak of killing people, or he’s part of the Order of the Phoenix and the leader of Dumbledore’s Army, or he’s using the Half-Blood Prince’s book, or he’s helping Dumbledore look for horcruxes, or  . . .  well, you get the idea.  The wall, though, remains the same throughout the books.  Harry is THE Harry Potter, and his celebrity is both a blessing and a curse.  There’s no doubt though that it sets him apart, isolates him, even from his closest friends.  He has lost his parents before he even knew them (as you’ll see, this is a fairly common source of loss), and this serves not only as the loss, but also as a means of making the wall that much higher and stronger.  And his loss also feeds his deepest desire, which is not only to defeat Voldemort, but also to find happiness with a real family.  He enjoys hints of this with the Weasleys throughout the series, but [Spoiler Alert] it is only with the ending of the final book that he truly achieves it.

Other examples?  Let’s take Jane Yellowrock, the heroine of Faith’s Skinwalker series.  Her secret is that she shares her body and mind with Beast, the mountain lion who serves as her alter ego.  No one can know that Jane shifts into Beast’s form to hunt and to track those who elude Jane in her human form.  Jane’s wall?  Well, the secret serves as one.  So does her Cherokee heritage, which sets her apart from most of those around her even when she’s not in cat form.  And she’s a vamp hunter.  In almost all ways, Jane is isolated, alone, even as she surrounds herself with allies and enemies, friends and the occasional lover.  Her loss, like Harry Potter’s, dates back to her childhood:  Jane is an orphan who was placed in a Christian school with other orphans and denied not only her family life, but also her Cherokee heritage.  Her desire?  Well, sure, it’s to kill vamps and not get killed herself. But as her love for Molly, Big Evan and their kids shows, she also longs to recapture some semblance of normal family life, even if she isn’t the settle-down-and-get-married type.

Ethan Kaille, of my (D.B. Jackson‘s) Thieftaker series, cannot reveal that he is a conjurer.  In Massachusetts in the 1760s, people are still condemned and hanged as witches.  Ethan must guard his secret or risk execution.  He is isolated from those around him by the fact that he is a convicted mutineer who served more than thirteen years at hard labor.  He has lost his youth, the one great love of his life, and is even maimed as a result of his incarceration.  And he longs, above all else, for the peace and good fortune that he possessed before the Ruby Blade mutiny and his subsequent conviction, and that he knows he can never wholly regain.

Darwen Arkwright, of A.J.’s new middle reader series, has a secret as well.  He has a magic mirror hanging in his room.  At the beginning of Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact he doesn’t have it, but he gets it early in the book, and it drives nearly all of the action that follows.  Darwen is isolated by dint of being British in the thoroughly American city of Atlanta.  He has lost his parents and been uprooted from his home in England.  And he longs simply to be thought of as normal, to have friends, to be something other than an object of derision among his classmates.

I could go on — so many other heroes fit this pattern — but I think you get the idea.  Let me be clear:  I’m not suggesting that you should use Secret, Wall, Loss, Desire as a formula for creating characters.  That would probably result in contrived, formulaic character work.  But I would be willing to bet that most of your best characters already have attributes similar to these.  And I would also guess that if you’re finding that your characters feel a bit flat, it may be that one or more of these elements is missing.

So how about it?  Does your hero or heroine fit the model?  Can you tell us about his/her secret, wall, loss, and desire?

David B. Coe

19 comments to On Writing: Character Development — Secret, Wall, Loss, Desire

  • D
    great post and neat new way to think about core character attributes which are internal. I totally agree that such an approach to story is central to its success. I still think character is king.

    I’m wrestling now with finding ways to make these key issues feel fresh. The absent parents, in middle grades, is a case in point. It’s common because it is both potent and, in plot terms, necessary, but it is common enough that it can feel familiar as a device and I’m trying to think up different ways to create the same effect. Will keep you (all) posted… 🙂

    Again, thanks. Great way to refocus onthe important stuff.

  • David – Thanks for adding to the toolbox! I have been thinking about character development a *lot* – I’ve been working on two different sequels, with the result that I need to add character depth, to create new conflicts. “Walls” are my bread and butter these days 🙂

    (And AJ – I completely agree about the challenge to make key elements feel fresh! I’ve been mapping out stories, and many feel the same or similar to classics in our field, but that mapping is just the first step…)

  • Great post, David. it’s an intriguing new way at looking at the ‘character’ creation. And I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that this shouldn’t be used as a formula to create characters, but once you have them created, going back and looking at them through this filter can be highly useful and revealing. I’m going to go apply it to the WIP right now–and I think I’ll apply it to my main antagonist as well as my primary two protags.

  • These four things are GREAT! Such a cool way of establishing fundamentals of a character.

    In my WIP, Mary, the MC, does fit. Secret: Two, one she has the power of hellfire, most folks in her life know this, but it isn’t something she shares with the world. The big secret, for her, is that when she murdered her demonic sister in law, she didn’t believe the woman was demonic. So Mary believes /knows she’s a murderer, not a hero. More than that (and this she hasn’t shared with anyone at all), her sil was pregnant. No matter how much people believe the sil was evil, that child, at least to Mary, was an innocent.

    Wall: well, she has a demonic power, and that keeps her apart.

    Loss: her brother killed himself because of the sil. And she doesn’t have a normal life, which she wants.

    Desire: on a simple scale, she wants the hellfire gone so she can have a normal life. On the more emotional side, she wants to be forgiven; she wants to get rid of the guilt over her actions. She believes she can’t be forgiven, that the guilt won’t ever be allieviated.

  • Heck yeah, David. I love what Ed said about using this as a filter through which to look at characters who are already in place.

    So let’s see. Character: Helena Martin, from my WIP, HELLHOUND.

    Secret: She’s a shape-shifting hound with an instinctive hatred toward demons and dark magic, which she must hide from her mundane housemates, who are serving as her cover as she hides from the “big bad”.

    Wall: She has magic – this sets her apart from the rest of the Hellhounds, because she is forced to separate from them so she can hide the book that holds the keys to their freedom. It further bars her from getting close to her roommates, since her use of magic tends to attract unwanted attention from various antagonists.

    Loss: I am sensing a theme here. Helena lost both her parents in the past ten years, both of them under the influence of the enslavement spell in the book she now protects. Her father drowned when she was 12, and her mother was shot when she was 16. Now, at 20, Helena has no sense of safety left in her world.

    Desire: Helena wants to live a life free of the violence and heartache she grew up with. She wants revenge on the sorcerers who killed her mother, and freedom from the master that kept the generations of Hellhounds enslaved for thousands of years. She doesn’t think she’ll get any of these, but she’s determined to go down fighting.

  • @AJ Inkheart was very interesting, because the main character spent almost the entire book with her father. There were a few parts where they got separated, but I think Cornelia Funke did a very good job of breaking that “absent parent” necessity.

  • Thanks all for the kind comments. Glad this is resonating with you the way it did with me when I first starting thinking about it.

    A.J., I’m wrestling with something similar. I’ve recently started thinking about a new alternate world fantasy that I’d like to write, and I’m finding that while there are tropes that I CAN use, I don’t really want to, at least not in any traditional way. But how do I turn them on their ear to make them seem new. We should chat about this stuff at some point.

    Mindy, thanks. Walls are a big part of my fiction-writing world right now, too. Thieftaker is all about walls. Best of luck with he sequels.

    Edmund, good to see you here. Hope all is getting better on your end of things. I agree completely that this works for antagonists as well as protagonists. I should have mentioned that in the post itself, but yeah, great point.

    Emily, thanks for sharing, and also for the kind feedback. Mary sounds like a very, very cool character.

    Lauren, I like what you’ve told us of Helena, too. There is something about the loss of parents for a young character that serves to isolate and sear the character with pathos. It’s no wonder it occurs so often. Looking forward to seeing the book in print. 🙂

  • The Mathelete

    First time poster, long time lurker here. Loved the thoughts, David, and I largely agree. In reading this, it really crystallized an issue I’m currently having in several of my projects. I think (completely subjectively, of course) that I’m pretty good at initial character inception. I can set up some really gut wrenching walls and secrets, some pretty terrifying loss, and some really complicated desires.

    All of these things are excellent starting points, but I’d love some pointers on how to move past them. I seem to sort of tunnel vision my characters, and, in a very Dr. House sort of way, people never change in my head. But for a story to be good, they HAVE to change either through some internal or external force. Secrets have to come out in the open or be threatened with disclosure. Some chink in the wall has to form. Some loss has to be put behind/aside or replaced by an even deeper loss, and some desire has to be at least partially quenched (or equally, further inflamed).

    I’ve always felt I do this poorly. My friends (aka free proofreaders) always say it works, but that’s the hidden cost of friends as proofreaders — they wouldn’t say it sucked even if it was complete drivel. How does one realistically, without being melodramatic or insufficient, have a character experience a fundamental change or challenge to their underlying personality? How can I keep the headspace of a character intact while faced with a fundamental shift in circumstances? How can a fundamentally proud character who suffers a loss or humiliation retain the kernel of his/her pride but still reflect the change in circumstances? A fundamentally masculine character accept his homosexuality? A fundamentally meek character step up and do something courageous? The funny jokester face a tragedy reflectively without becoming a sad sack? Ad infinitum.

    All of these Cold War era thoughts about containment, appropriate response, and mutually assured destruction keep popping into my head when I think about how a character (a BELOVED character) has to change. There has to be a balance, but I am not quite sure where that balance is and fear I often overshoot in one direction or the other. No matter how many times I rewrite to re-calibrate, I rarely feel like I’ve hit the mark with the right amount of damage/reflection/confusion/etc.

    I know that change is a necessity for a character not to remain a flat piece of cardboard cutout, but I’m asking you, my seasoned superiors, is there some guideline or wisdom for doing so without damaging or destroying the character I’ve so lovingly built? Is there some trick to keeping the voice I’ve been capturing intact through a traumatic change? Or maybe, the very fact that I’m uncomfortable with the result means that I’ve gotten it “right” because the character experiencing the change would also be uncomfortable? I’d love to hear thoughts from you all about this.

    Thanks so much to all of you at MW for months and months of fun reading and great advice. I’d really like to know what people have to say about characters and change. Despite doing a lot of reading on the web about it, I’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer. Maybe one of you has precisely the advice I’m looking for right on the tip of your ton. . . um, keyboard?

  • Mathelete, thanks for a truly terrific question. I would love to pull out my magical “Evolving Character” elixir and give you some (or perhaps sell it to you at a hefty profit) but the fact is that this lies at the very crux of good writing and, thus, also at the very crux of what makes writing so very difficult. There comes a point when I’m writing a character, where he or she begins to act and think and speak without prompting from me. I know how weird that sounds, but it’s the absolutely truth. It’s as if the character comes alive and starts behaving like a real individual. I like to say that it is the magical part of writing, but the fact of the matter is it’s not. What I believe really happens at that point is that I recognize in that character traits and tendencies that I see in my friends, in members of my family, in myself. The character has taken on such weight of personality that he/she seems like other “real” people I know. My point is this: The problem you’re having may be that you’re thinking of your characters as characters, when at some point you need to start thinking of them as people. Don’t ask yourself how a fundamentally proud character retains his or her pride in the face of adversity. Ask yourself how that friend of yours — who is, in fact, proud — dealt with being laid off or with finding out that his girlfriend was cheating on him. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it really does make a difference. I have two seemingly unrelated skills that I believe are key to my success as a writer. The first is that I create good characters. The second is that “in real life” I’m a really good friend to the people I love. And I think these skills are NOT actually unrelated at all, that they are two sides of the same coin. I don’t know if this helps you at all. Again, this is what makes writing hard, and to a certain degree it is a matter of trial and error, of writing book after book, story after story, until you get it right. But I also think that it demands this change of mindset, from working with characters on a page to working with people who are living lives and dealing with real issues. If I’ve missed the mark, I apologize and will try again. Let me know.

  • Hmm.

    Good stuff to think about. It takes a bit of thinking it over to parse out a character along these lines, but it’s definitely an interesting way of looking at it, I thin.

    The main character of my current WIP is a young lady of about 16 or 17 (I’m still nailing down the details) from a small, struggling, post-apocalyptic village named Isa. Isa’s secret: she knows that one of the village’s most sacred taboos is based on a lie because she mistakenly broke it as a little girl without any direct, negative consequences. Isa’s wall runs concurrent with her loss: she is the daughter of a man who has been convicted and executed for breaking that same sacred taboo. Though the rest of her family outwardly embraces the verdict, as a measure of self-defense in a, only Isa rejects it because of its basis on a perceived falsehood and unfairness. This defiance puts her in serious dischord with her village (and her family). Her desire is to understand the true nature of the taboo, and to find some way to right the wrong of her father’s death. Ultimately, she is driven by a sense of fairness that she learned from her father. This leads her to re-break that same taboo again, this time with intention and purpose. Epic fantasy hijinks ensue.

  • Ouch… messed up a sentence and a little html, there… Oops.

    The sentence “Though the rest of her family outwardly embraces the verdict, as a measure of self-defense in a, only Isa rejects it because of its basis on a perceived falsehood and unfairness.” should read: “Though the rest of her family outwardly embraces the verdict, as a measure of self-defense, only Isa rejects it because of its basis on a perceived falsehood and unfairness.” I was going to write more of an explanation on her family’s rapid capitulation to the sort of brutal tradition that evolves in a dystopic, post-apocalyptic landscape, but I decided it was unnecessary for the short explication of her character… but never deleted the transition words before posting.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for an interesting post. I was amused, looking at my WIP, to find that your formula works the very best for my villains, which actually shouldn’t be surprising considering that they provided the seed for my story. My main villain is a tyrannical (evil) queen – cue extreme stereotypes. But, in terms of why she does what she does, let’s just say that, metaphorically, someone *did* put a gun to her head, which provides her secret, and her initial resistance lead to the violent death of everyone in her home community. Aside from the fact that evil queens almost *are* walls, she’s not from the country she rules, and in her native country she was a sort of shaman so was really never ordinary. Finally, she’s really good at recruiting allies to her side (she’s working on recruiting one of the protagonists), but she’d really like an actual friend – end parade of stereotypes.

    I also noticed that my three main protagonists each have walls best characterized by emotional states: fear, pride, and anger.

    Also, a quick note to mathelete, who asked such a thought provoking question: I am very much *not* an expert, but many/most of the examples you pose seem to have the characters dealing with extreme loss, since events that contradict our perceived selves tend to really hurt. I definitely think David offered wonderful advice, but perhaps you might also consider that how we deal with hurt and loss is another aspect of character, which needs to be defined by you, the author. In the case of a meek character becoming courageous, I assume that some sort of hurt, either administered or mended, provides the impetus for the change.

  • ajp88

    Martin’s talks over the years were the first to really hammer this point home for me. He went on and on about how every character worth writing about has a secret compelling them, one that may or may not be fully revealed over the course of their tale. This article takes that notion and expands upon it. Really helpful stuff here.

    My POV characters all have some sort of secret, it seems. I guess one particularly grand example would be a master thief by the name of Jaycen. When he was a kid, his father ran out on the family, leaving behind a wife, a ten year old son, and a newborn daughter. His mother retreated into herself and became bed ridden by depression, so he was forced to see to their needs. That’s why he began to steal. His wall would be the deep bitter resentment he feels towards the world because of this upbringing. His loss has to be never really having a parent to guide him through adolescence. And his greatest desire is to earn enough coin to move he and his little sister (who helps him in stealing now) away from the bustling capital city in a year; then he can take time for himself and meet a girl, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Or so he thinks…

  • Stephen, thanks for the comments. I like the idea of your character’s attributes being tied so closely to the village’s taboo. Reinforcing worldbuilding with character and character with worldbuilding can only serve to deepen both. Sounds like an intriguing project.

    Hep, as I mentioned in my reply to Edmund’s comment, I had been thinking as I wrote the post that this would be very helpful for thinking about villains as well as heroes. I just forgot to make the point in the post. But yes, it sounds like it works very well with your evil queen. Thanks for commenting, and also for your reply to Mathelete, which I think is spot on.

    AJP, thank you. Glad you found it helpful, and always nice to be mentioned favorably along with Martin. Thanks as well for telling us about your character. Wishing you great success with the project.

  • The Mathelete

    David, thanks so much for the thoughtful and wonderful response. I totally understand what you’re saying about the characters taking on a voice and life of their own. Two summers ago while moving and before I had such distractions as Internet, satellite television, and a job to tear me from my blank white word processor, I had the pleasure (psychotic-break? Maybe somebody slipped me some of David’s magical elixir?) of completely subsuming myself in a story for three weeks. It was probably the best, most consistent writing I’ve ever done, and at the end of three weeks, I had 100k words of draft that probably outshone the 600-700k polished words I’d written to that point. I didn’t even feel like I was writing but instead just narrating a story that was already happening to which I was just a casual observer. It was almost magical – at least as magical as living out of boxes and savings can really be said to be.

    In that story though, nothing really too bad ever happened to “my” characters (the central set), and everything bad that did happen remained consistent with their personalities and typically had some sort of silver lining. In short, there were some evolutionary changes to the characters, but no revolutionary changes. There were no external forces that challenged their very natures. The plot and the characters existed relatively harmoniously.

    Hepseba, I think that you hit my personal nail on the proverbial head. Usually, by the time something truly unsettling/disturbing/tragic/life-altering happens, I’ve gotten very comfortable with my guys and gals (Desperate Housewives might be able to kill a central character in the first episode – I typically wait at least ten chapters). I know how they would react to minor stresses, frivolities, inconveniences, and opportunities. As David said, they take on their own voices, and I really don’t have to think about how they would act or what they would do.

    But we don’t act the same way when we’re nervous about a first date and when we’re nervous that a spouse might be dying. Those “defining” moments are always either my best work or my worst, and I think it’s precisely because I haven’t thought through how a particular easy-going character might respond to the murder of his best friend or how a mother might react to the disappearance of her child. And because I’ve not thought through how my character(s) should react during these kinds of big life-changing events, I can’t really calibrate the voice, they either take everything far too well to be believable or go daytime soap opera melodramatic, and the longevity/severity of the change to the character. The same character who is mad and sad for a little while at being dumped may well go completely bonkers at losing their family pet. Now I’m devolving into word-salad, the salad nobody likes to eat, so I’m going to stop rambling since I think that Hepseba has given me precisely the advice I needed to make progress in at least two pieces.

    I think, as an exercise, I might try taking a few of the characters I know best (POV in at least 1 completed novel-length piece will probably be my threshold) and try to imagine how they might react to the worst thing I could possibly do to them. Even just trying to think up what the worst thing that could happen to them might be, that could be really informative. If anyone else has ideas about developing characters after major plot events, I’d really love to hear them. Thanks for the advice and encouragement, and always, happy writing!

  • David, I’m late to the party, which seems to be an ongoing problem with me!

    I wondered what you were going to to with the Jane Yellowrock info you asked about. I have always loved characters who were singularities in their own worlds – walled off by circumstance or choice – but I never looked at them the way you did today. I totally love the 4-step process you have developed. It lets you think deeply about a character but in overlapping categories. It has a very Zen feel to it! And it’s something I’ll use often and steal from time to time. Hey. At least I’m honest about my theivery! 🙂


  • Razziecat

    This really gives me something to think about. Two of my characters in my WIP just don’t seem as “alive” as I want them to. Although I managed to hit my 50K words in NaNo, I know I’m going to have to go back and work on those two people. In general, I’m drawn to characters who have experienced profound loss, and who are in some way set apart from others (& those two things are usually connected). My characters don’t always have a secret, although there is usually some pivotal event or characteristic that makes them who they are; and the desire, yes, I use that one a lot! These four points fit the antagonist of the story well, and the three major “good guys” as well. Now I have to figure out what’s missing from the other two.

  • Wow, this is a really cool litmus test for rounding out characters. Thanks for coming up with it, David!

    Okay, applied to Janni, star of my recently-finished YA high fantasy: When Janni was a child, she was the princess of her country. When her uncle murdered her father and tried to kill her (the blame was put on someone else), she escaped. So her *secret* is that she’s still alive. Her wall? She has the powers of a landmaiden (think village/lay priestess with healing powers) and was raised by a landmaiden, so they’ve always lived slightly apart from the villagers. Also, because of her upbringing with this landmaiden, she’s turned out a bit emotionally constipated. Her loss is that with her father’s murder, she was technically orphaned, and her desire is that she wants just to be a landmaiden and help people rather than take her throne back from her evil uncle.

    Applied to Jack Garcia, heroine of the urban fantasy side project I’ve been working on: Jack and her twin brother Eddie have had the ability to speak to the dead since birth (the secret). Her wall is that she and Eddie grew distant after high school for reasons I’m still working out, probably partly related to him taking a job at a sleazy tabloid, and also related to an emotionally unavailable father who raised them after their mother died at their birth. Her loss is her mother, of course, but more recently, Eddie, who frustrates her because he won’t tell her how he died. And her desire is that she wants to find out the truth, which is kept from her even when she makes the trip to Florida to demand it from his supervisors.

    This is great! It’s really got me thinking! 🙂

  • Thanks for the reply, Mathelete. Glad that Hep was able to help you out! Best of luck with your WIP.

    Steal to your heart’s content, Faith. And thanks for the kind words. Glad you like this.

    Razz, it sounds as though this approach will work well for your work — as I’ve said, this should work very well with antagonists, too. Should have put that in the original post. Thanks for the comment!

    Laura, both projects (and their main characters) sound very cool. Looking forward to seeing them on the shelves some day. Good to hear that this inspired you in some way. Thanks!