Quick-Tip Tuesday: The Power of Secrets

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I’ve just started teaching an online course with the Odyssey writing program, and it should surprise no one here that the course is on “Point of View: The Intersection of Character and Plot.” As most of you know, point of view is kind of an obsession for me. I think it lies at the heart of all storytelling. You can do a Magical Words search of “Coe, point of view,” and you’ll get enough hits to keep you reading for hours . . .

In talking about point of view, I also can’t help but talk about character and the process I use to develop the characters I use, primary and secondary, in my own work.

One of the things I like to do when coming up with a character’s history and/or life circumstances, is give that person a secret of some sort. Any secret at all will do. It can be big. Huge. All encompassing. For instance, Jane Yellowrock, the heroine of Faith’s New York Times Bestselling series is a Cherokee skinwalker who shares her soul with that of a mountain lion named Beast. That’s a pretty big secret. It lies at the heart of everything she does and experiences.

Justis Fearsson, the hero of the contemporary urban fantasy series I’m writing for Baen Books, is a weremyste. He goes insane every month on the full moon, and those moon phasings are slowly driving him permanently insane. That’s a pretty big secret, too.

Characters can have much smaller secrets than that. Harry Potter has an invisibility cloak. That’s a secret. It’s a different kind of secret, but it is one, nevertheless. It’s not earth-shattering, but having that cloak is pretty handy, and it certainly makes possible many of the plot twists that give the Harry Potter books such sparkle. Katniss Everdeen and her friend Gale go hunting in the forests around her home in District 12, even though doing so is illegal. Again, this is not an enormous secret, but it plays a role at key moments in the narrative.

Lots of characters you know have secrets. But why are these hidden elements of their lives important?

Giving secrets to our characters sets up plot points for our stories. But secrets do more than that. They add dimension and richness to our characters.  Those secrets become the source of our characters’ vulnerabilities, and often their strengths as well. They get in the way of relationships; or they enhance them. They can put the lives of our characters in danger; and they can enable our characters to escape those perils.

Secrets also make our characters more relatable for our reading audience. No, I’m not suggesting that our readers are skinwalkers or weremystes, or that they own invisibility cloaks. But all of us have secrets, some large, some small, some dark, some embarrassing, some positive but not yet ready for sharing. We want our readers to feel a kinship to our characters on as many levels as possible. Hiding things in our characters’ pasts can give our readers one more connection to them.

So if you’re starting something new and are looking for a way to make your character more interesting for your reader and a better vehicle for your storytelling, consider giving her or him a secret. Or if you’re already in the middle of a project and you feel like it’s missing something — energy, suspense, intrigue — plant a secret in the backstory of your protagonist and see what happens. You might just find that it’s the story element you’ve been looking for.

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11 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: The Power of Secrets

  • David, I love this! And speaking of secrets, I also like to insert secrets that the character doesn’t know. Meaning that they know there are things they don’t know, but need to know, and want to know. (scratches head) I think that makes sense.

  • Makes sense to me, Faith!

    Secrets can be fun, too. My MC, when pressed, decides to divulge her *big* secret to her traveling companion. He doesn’t believe her, so she gives up and tells him a credible lie. That lie comes into play a few times, and eventually bites them both, while also adding more layers and challenges to their developing relationship. Great topic, David. 🙂

  • Faith, I love that. And I know you’ve done it to great effect with Jane. Thanks for the comment.

    Laura, I LOVE that. Great twist on the secrets idea. Thanks for sharing!

  • David: Excellent point. What about a character who has a huge chip on her shoulder because the people she works with (at the NYC FBI office) know something about her she wishes they didn’t? That of course creates the environment for a lot of conflict while my character and her colleagues try to solve their case.

  • Razziecat

    I never thought about it this way, but yes, it certainly does add vulnerability. I have a character that has a number of positive things going for him, but he also has a specific physical weakness that most people don’t know about. It keeps him from being that too-powerful character that just gets annoying. And it can be used against him, if you know how, which of course happens in the course of the story. He’s stuck with it, too, at the end of the story, so even though he has a mostly-happy ending, I didn’t fix that, because in real life, we get both good and bad, and can’t always fix all of our problems.

  • I love this. In my WIP others misjudge the main character because they think they know her, but she’s hiding LOTS of secrets. She’s constantly trying to decide what secrets she can share to change their minds, or which secrets might make things worse if others find out. I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before. Things to ponder.

  • Xman, yes, that’s just the sort of thing I’m talking about. Sure, her secret is out of the bag, but it still informs who she is and how the relationships around her work. Can you deepen it further? Maybe they know something about this secret from her past, but if they knew ALL of it then she’d really be in a mess . . . That sort of thing. But yes, this is the exact point I’m making in the post. Sounds cool!

    Razz, that sounds great. We all have our Kryptonite, right? And it never fully goes away. Great stuff!!

    SiSi, thank you! Glad you found it helpful. And your character sounds fascinating. To my mind, the more secrets the better!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’ve always been fascinated by characters who are more than they seem, in part because I believe that to one extent or another, we are all more than we seem. It’s not a flesh-and-blood person if everything about them is as-you’d-expect.

    However, writing this, I realized that in my most recent project I’ve been neglectful of at least two of my important characters in this regard. It was easy with the other characters who all had their own complications and secrets. I need to remember that I-the-author should be surprised by some of my characters, too. Just because *I* haven’t bestowed them with something interesting doesn’t mean they haven’t got something of their own up their sleeve, even if it’s simple or silly, like a strong wish to run around barefoot even if they never would because in the wintertime that’s just not practical!

  • Hep, I sometimes neglect this in characters, too. And then when those unexpected, unplanned secrets are revealed to me, it’s REALLY fun!

  • Razziecat

    Hep and David – Oh, yes! That’s the best part of writing! I love it when my characters surprise me. Once or twice I’ve actually been stunned at what was going onto the page and had NO idea where it came from. The brain is a straaaange place 😀

  • Razz said, “That’s the best part of writing!” Yes, it is. I still tell the story of when, during the Forelands series, a character told me she was pregnant. Blew my mind. Destroyed my outlines for the remaining books. But it was absolutely what had to happen.