June 24th, 2015

What Type of Secret Does Your Character Keep?

Angela Ackerman

Martina BooneA friend of mine, the talented YA author Martina Boone, debuted last year with Compulsion, a southern gothic mystery romance novel showcasing a protagonist with the most unique and amazing talent: she is a finder of lost things. For her, this inherited talent (sometimes a curse, sometimes a boon), acts a compulsion–when she senses something lost close by, she is driven to discover the item’s location and return it to where it belongs.

Not only does this steer the plot of the book in many interesting ways, it is also an example of brilliant characterization layering which makes her heroine Barrie Watson so unique and compelling.

When I fell so in love with this book (and yes, I am absolutely recommending you read it), I had to ask myself WHY.  For me, it was the secret mystery behind her talent. I wanted to know how this inherited skill flowered into being, and how it involved the unusual blend of ruling families of Watson Island. I also wanted to uncover each lost item just as powerfully as Barrie did, and unravel why they had been hidden away in the first place.

I know I’m not alone at being drawn in by secrets. As readers, when something is hinted at but unknown, we sit up and pay attention. We hunger to follow clues down the rabbit hole until the shape of what is being withheld is revealed. This is why secrets are so addictive, and act as an excellent way to bring readers closer to your characters.

Pinpointing Your Character’s Secret

Have you thought about what secrets your hero might be harboring, and the price that comes with bearing them? After all, rarely are secrets good things, especially in fiction. In fact, they are usually a rat’s nest of pain, because often a secret is kept out fear of exploitation or judgement. Sometimes at the heart of one lies the character’s Emotional Wound.

Here are some types of secrets to help you decide what motivates your character to keep one.

Secrets Revolving Around 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

Secrets Revolving around 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 Revolving Around 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 to use in your story, consider these questions:

Does this secret enhance the plotline, 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?

What’s your character’s secret? Let me know in the comments!

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About Angela

Angela AckermanAngela Ackerman is a co-author of the bestselling resources, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are sourced by US universities and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. You can find her on Twitter or at the popular site, Writers Helping Writers™, which specializes in building innovative tools for writers that cannot be found elsewhere.

Her ebook, Emotional Amplifiers, is currently free on Amazon.

46 comments to What Type of Secret Does Your Character Keep?

  • So interesting, Angela – In reading, I realized that almost every character I’ve written has a secret…and I never thought about it that way, because it’s been personal damage in their past that they’re ashamed of. I just somehow never thought of that as a secret!

    Isn’t it funny how sometimes we’re too close to see the obvious?

    Thanks for the early am illumination!

    • angelaackerman1

      Hurray for dots connecting. I think secrets are so compelling. It is human nature to want to discover the secrets hidden from us. I think it is because at our heart, we are all explorers. 🙂

  • ManjuBeth

    Angela, I agree with Laura. My MG characters all have issues that they don’t want to share. But in my chapter books and picture books, secrets are held by the main characters.

    • angelaackerman1

      Secrets are extremely compelling! Don’t we all read to discover secrets, the stories hidden between pages? I think so!

  • I love characters with secrets. I love when authors trickle in references rather than dumping. My current hero has a secret. I just wish he’d tell me what it is, beyond “Something Bad Happened and I Couldn’t Fix it, so I’m Carrying All This Guilt”

    • Fae Rowen

      If you’re anything like me, Terry, someday-when you least expect it-your fingers will fly across the keyboard and you’ll read “the answer” on the screen. I still don’t know how that happens!

    • angelaackerman1

      Yes, the best books are ones where authors keep the secret, giving just enough to make us want to know what it is even more before finally revealing it. In your situation, think about your character’s backstory, and his past experiences. Who shaped him, who hurt him? What one thing does he fear most, what is his deepest regret, what is he ashamed of and what moral line would he never cross? Do some free associations with these questions and you may just trip upon his secret. 🙂 Good luck!

    • I’m with Fae on this – I know there’s a biggie, but it doesn’t come out until that crucial moment. Often I think I know what the secret is, but then it turns out to be something way bigger. THAT’s the best moment. 🙂

      • angelaackerman1

        I think this is why when we are choosing a secret, we dedicate time to really deciding how to make it as big as it can be, and how to reveal it in a way that is the most satisfying/has the biggest impact. Readers love to be surprised, so we can lead them in one direction so that they think they know what the secret is, but then blindside them by taking their assumptions and turning them on their head, providing a different (and better) secret all together.

  • Fantastic post, Angela! If I had to categorize my MC’s secret, it’s most likely one of necessity. She’s plotting revenge against another character – and while she’s definitely not ashamed, guilt-ridden, or fearful of being exploited, she knows what the consequences of her plans / actions could be if other characters find out.

    • angelaackerman1

      That’s always a good reason, and the best part is that it carries high stakes. That’s a big part of any secret…what is the consequence of it being discovered?

  • Oooh, this is so juicy! I love reading about characters with secrets, and I agree with Terry–I don’t want to know what it is right away. I’m going to have to work on this, right now one of my character’s secret feels as if it could be a combination of all of these…whoops.

    • angelaackerman1

      Authors who are really skilled know just how to hint without revealing, and they string us along as we read for many pages before finally unveiling the secret. I think it takes a lot of practice, but what a skill to learn to do well!

  • This is great Angela. I have an historical character in 1909 who loves to read scandalous romance novels. She is afraid of being slut shamed because of it and so hides her passion. She is found out. So she has to deal with the outcome and move forward. Not as easy as it sounds. Even today. 🙂

    • angelaackerman1

      Yes, that would be a big repercussion back then especially. But honestly, when secrets come out, it often teaches us who we really are, and it is an opportunity to grow stronger as we face the fallout. Sometimes secrets need to come out as well.

  • I think everyone has secrets, which is why the love reading about characters that have secrets 🙂

  • A different kind of secret in my current WIP—neither the characters nor the reader knows, but it’s (hopefully) a shocking reveal that changes their perspective. Maybe that’s a different trope?

    • angelaackerman1

      Those types of secrets have huge impact – secrets we discover really re-frame how we see the world. Good for you for building this into your story. 🙂

  • Thanks, Angela. Wonderful post and ditto on most of what has been said. I often think back to something my dad told my brother. My middle brother was obsessed (as many teen boys are) with seeing naked women, sneaking into a strip club and hiding explicit magazines. My dad told him that a completely naked woman wasn’t as exciting to him as one with “less.” He explained that what you don’t or can’t see right away is much more thrilling than something that’s splayed out there.

    I love that in certain books. Love that I have to wait and build on my excitement and I love doing that to readers. Because even when we begin to guess what secret a character is hiding, we are never truly prepared … like Noman Bates mother in the rocking chair … none us us guessed did we?

    • angelaackerman1

      Yes, you nailed it, which is why the slow reveal is so enticing. Once a secret is out, it is out, so we need to really build up to it (and make sure the secret is as surprising and juicy as possible, always upping the impact!)

  • Oh, gosh, Angela! Thank you so much for the shout out for Compulsion! I love that, and I love this whole post. As usual, you are dead on. I love your caution to think of those secrets in terms of what you want readers to know and what it says about that character, and I love the depth and tension that brings to a story.


    • Martina, thanks so much for stopping in! Angela hasn’t seen this yet as I just yanked you out of the spam folder and approved it. I’m very intrigued by your book. 🙂

    • angelaackerman1

      LOL, the spam folder, again Martina! I think the spam gremlins are out to get you! As you know, I am a big fan of your book and you rendered characterization so well through your use of secrets and kept me glued to the page, so how could I not use it as an example? 🙂 Looking forward to reading Persuasion!

  • Fae Rowen

    What a great playbook, Angela!

    In my first book, the hero kept his identity a secret. When he revealed who he was, that very dark moment propelled the book to the end. In my second book, both characters try to hide their identity, but one character is a better detective. He’s got to hid who he is, or the other character, an assassin, would try to kill him. The next three books have no identity secrets, thank goodness!

    • angelaackerman1

      Identity secrets are really compelling, because it means a war within as one fights to hide who one truly is. These secrets I think are ones that are built to come out at some point, because trying to be someone who one isn’t tales a toll, and can only go on so long. The high stakes of an assassin would really force the character to do everything they can to try to keep the secret though!

  • Amanda Mitchell

    Fantastic post, Angela! My MC’s wound is tightly wrapped up in her secret! 🙂

    • angelaackerman1

      Often the two are tied together, so if you happen to be struggling figuring out what the wound is, the secret is a great place to start digging around! 🙂

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    Oh, Angela, this was so much fun and so perfectly timed — how did you know?! 🙂 I’ve been sitting here brainstorming a new project all morning, doing what ifs on secrets and lies for my main characters.

    • angelaackerman1

      Whoohoo! I love it when my posts come at the right time. It was pure coincidence. I certainly wasn’t there in your house, standing over you, watching, recording…*cough*…because that would be creepy. 😉

  • Angela, I just approved a few comments, so you might want to take it from the top once.

    I’m a fan of secrets, and mine are often based around shame. Shame of parents, family, faults, past, love, surviving, etc. Currently, I have a nun with a few secrets she knows about (lust and not saving a soldier) and a few she doesn’t, such as why she’s afraid of men. But she discovers them in the book, and it was a lot of fun to write.

    • angelaackerman1

      Shame is so powerful – I think it is one of the most enduring emotions out there (it’s counterpart being Hope.) We can do stupid things and feel guilt, but those things we can often let go of through self forgiveness and penance, chalking it up as stupidity, inexperience, etc. Shame is different, and hits us at the core. Shame strikes us where we are most vulnerable, and is a much deeper battle and harder to move past.

    • Shame sistas, Jenny! *high fives, then slinks away*

  • I love the way you categorized the different kinds of secret. I just finished a book and plotting the next so this is so timely for me. And COMPULSION sounds fantastic. I’m a big fan of Southern Gothic.

    • angelaackerman1

      So glad the timing works well on this post – congrats on finishing your latest book. And yes, Compulsion is very good, and the kind of book you go bonkers waiting for the next one to come out! 🙂

  • I agree with Amy, this is juicy. I’m revising and had to brainstorm my antagonist’s motives. His motive turn out to be the crux of the entire plot. His secret is revealed in the final scene when the hero decides to confess his own secret. The antagonist knew the hero’s secret all along, because he set up the hero. It’s all about betrayal. I hope I can pull it off. Lots to revise

    • angelaackerman1

      It sounds like you are on the right track, and that you’ve worked hard to build a compelling antagonist with real motives. The more realistic and strong an antagonist, the harder the hero must work to best him…and that makes for engaging reading!

  • Carolyn Toms-Neary

    While my protagonist can never decide if she’s gifted or cursed, I tease my readers with her skills, toughness, fear and compassion while they are getting to know her and, hopefully, falling in love with her. While her paranormal gifts are fun in themselves, they are small next to the big reveal. That is, where she’s been and what she’s been doing; what she is and not what many people assumed she was during a seven year absence from home between the ages of 17 and 24…ooh, I’m so excited and can’t wait to publish. Very close…

  • Thank you Angela – wow, you have just helped me plug a huge hole in my ms – the reason WHY…is happening. It’s the secret fear.
    I look forward to the workshop in Melbourne – see you then. Wendy

    • angelaackerman1

      That is great to hear Wendy! And I am so excited for Melbourne–can’t wait to meet you!

  • angelaackerman1

    Carolyn, I love your enthusiasm! I am very excited for you – clearly you are very passionate about this book!

  • What a great post. I’ve bookmarked it. I haven’t done enough thinking about secrets for my characters. A few secrets really would spice things up a bit.

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