What’s your character’s deepest, darkest secret? What is it that he or she doesn’t want anyone else to know? When you write your novel, YOU need to know the answer to these questions in order to create a compelling character. A secret is that inclination or trait (such as dishonesty, violence, sexual desire, alcoholism, or drug abuse—just to name a few) or an incident from the past that, if revealed, would change forever your character’s standing among co-workers, neighbors, friends, family, and lovers. Secrets inform the reader of what your character has to lose and why. Here are just a few ways that you can use a secret to help create a compelling character:
- Use the Secret to Trigger a Plot Twist—When we found out that Luke Skywalker’s father is Darth Vader, the revelation twisted the plot of Star Wars in a new direction. Make sure that the secret is truly hidden in the story as it develops, even as you prepare your readers for it to be unveiled.
- Keep the Secret a Secret—A secret should stay secret for as long as possible! This creates a great source of conflict that you can use in your plot. Suppose, for example, your character knows a secret that could save the President, but if he reveals it, enemy agents will kill his family. So, what does your character do?
- Make the Secret Something Tangible—Make the secret tangible by giving it a physical presence. Is your character’s secret hidden in a diary somewhere? A stack of letters tucked away in a desk drawer? An old photograph in the attic? An old newspaper clipping? Or, maybe your character’s deepest secret lies within the lipstick stain on the collar of his shirt? Whatever item you choose, use something that you can describe with the senses.
- Reveal the Secret in a Climax Scene—A powerful use of secrets is to reveal them as part of the climax scene, often giving an extra twist of meaning to the ultimate clash between the protagonist and antagonist.
- Leverage YOUR Own Secrets—Everyone has a secret, whether it’s in their past, present, or future. Maybe you did something during your childhood that you’re ashamed of. Maybe you’re hiding a credit card bill from your husband right now. Or, maybe you’re planning to do something in the future that you don’t want anybody to know about (at least not yet). We know our own secrets and, if we’re insightful, we understand how they affect our behavior. Does your secret cause you to avoid saying or doing certain things? Are you holding onto to something as a reminder or your past? Often, the most moving secrets are the ones that come directly from a writer’s life. What are your secrets? Can you give one of them to your character?