A 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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Angela 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.