Secrets, secrets are no fun… unless they're in a book. Character secrets keep things interesting – they can motivate your character, inspire their villains, and generally impact their relationships. However, as fun as they may be, overusing them can confuse your reader or make them lose interest in the story. Here’s a few things to keep in mind regarding your characters and their secrets.
Why are they keeping it?
We all have our reasons for guarding secrets. To oversimplify things, people keep secrets for protection. A character might know a piece of information that if revealed, hurts themselves or their loved ones. In addition, we keep secrets to avoid certain emotions. Perhaps the character feels embarrassed over their past actions, and wants to avoid reliving those feelings of guilt or shame.
Something motivates your character to hold out information – it’s your job to identify the reason. Are they protecting a loved one by hiding their identity? Or did an enemy make a deal with them, incentivizing the character to keep their mouth shut? Or do they want to guard themselves from inciting the wrath of one of their companions? Not only will these decisions drive your plot forward, but they’ll also tell you a lot about your character and what’s important to them.
What happens if other characters find out?
An exposed secret shifts a person’s perception, so naturally a reaction follows. People like knowing secrets, and when we learn them, the secret invokes a range of emotional responses: excitement, shock, disgust, understanding, and so on. Think about how the reveal changes the other characters’ perception. Do they lose trust, or do they admire the person even more? Did they suspect all along, or even know the secret already? Does the secret clash with their beliefs?
Beyond emotional responses, a secret might bring about certain repercussions. If it’s a secret that negatively impacts a character’s relationships, a fight may follow, or even a full-on split. But the new information might spark an idea – maybe a character finally understands a certain obstacle and can devise a plan. Your character’s secrets will impact the story – it’s your job to determine the extent of the effects.
How should information be revealed?
Knowing the nature of the secret and your character’s reactions to learning it can help you determine the best way to reveal it. A couple options exist: the gradual unveiling, or the sudden truth bomb. Each accomplishes an effective exposure, but with different buildups. The gradual unveil creates more of a slow burn, with little details and clues leaking out a drop at a time. The truth bomb packs a punch, knocking the reader in the teeth with a paradigm shift.
Which one works best depends on the story. Often, a bigger secret that impacts the story on a greater level follows a gradual reveal – like Snape’s identity reveal as the Half-Blood Prince in Harry Potter. That doesn’t mean a truth bomb can’t have a significant impact on the story, like Nico de Angelo’s coming out in Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades. For your own work, think about what will create the most intrigue or change in the story. Does dropping little hints motivate other characters? Or would they react more to a sudden shift in their perspective?
What can you keep from your audience?
Another question to consider is what can you keep hidden from your audience without losing their interest or frustrating them. There’s a “rule” in writing that you shouldn’t keep any of the protagonist’s secrets from the reader. As with all writing rules, you’re allowed to bend them a bit.
Once again using Rick Riordan and his Heroes of Olympus books as an example, his characters tend to guard secrets from one another, and sometimes the reader. Riordan will tease something regarding the secret, then jump to another character’s perspective. Most of these secrets get explained around halfway through the book (or at some point in the second act), avoiding the problem of dragging out a reveal until the very end.
Ask yourself if you’re being fair to your readers. When editing, consider whether it makes sense to hide the secret, or if your reader will enjoy the book more knowing the secret other characters might not know.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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