Monday, August 04, 2014

The Secrets Our Characters Keep

Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides
—André Malraux

This is a statement that resonates with me.

One of the key elements to creating a three-dimensional character that leaps off the page is to give them a secret. It becomes instant conflict--what if someone finds out? What if they are confronted about it? What if it derails their life as they know it?

A secret affects a character's growth. It separates your character from those around them and stalls their relationships. Their secret will brand them as "other" both in their mind and in the minds of those around them.

Secrets are hard to keep. People are naturally curious and they know when you have something to hide. Because a secret, even a well hidden secret, will make itself known. It will change the way a character reacts to certain circumstances. It will encourage superficial conversation because what is most important cannot be spoken. Your character will run instead of facing the problem, thereby making relationships impossible.

If two characters hold a secret, they are tethered by the secret in an static relationship. Neither can go forward without revealing the secret--and as long as they keep their knowledge, there is no going back.

There is also the possibility that a character may not be able to tell a secret because they don't know it themselves. Unknown scars from previous relationships lead to treating current love interests poorly. Was it something the love interest did that caused that argument, that separation? Or was it that thing that happened the last time the hero or heroine was in love? And if your character discovers the secret, will they tell it and reveal that they have a vulnerability?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the character is actively keeping the secret, he or she is expending energy to do it. It's on their mind, in their heart, coloring everything they say and do. They cannot stop thinking about it and what kind of consequences it will bring if it's revealed.

So what about you, have you ever given your character a deep dark secret that changed the way they reacted in your book?


13 comments:

Cari Hislop said...

Being an oblivious writer, until reading your post it didn't occur to me that in my last novel it's a secret that dominates the whole plot. The widowed hero is desperate to keep the identity of the woman he longs to wed from his five (mostly grown) sons - partly because he knows if they know who she is they'll insist on 'helping' him win her ie unwittingly ruin his chances and partly out of embarrassment because he let slip that he's spent eighteen years moaning in his sleep for this woman.

It's so true what you wrote...

"On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the character is actively keeping the secret, he or she is expending energy to do it. It's on their mind, in their heart, coloring everything they say and do."

I finally understand why the story demanded point of view time from various minor characters - one of the sons in particular ended up with a lot of page time. Emotionally he's the one who loses out the most because of the secret so it makes sense that the story would demand his voice to highlight the emotional drain. Thanks for your brilliant insight!!!!

Aidee Ladnier said...

So glad it spoke to you, Cari!!!

I'm always looking for ways to punch up my characters, so I really took this idea to heart. Almost all my characters have secrets--some are minor, some are dark and deep--but they all color how they approach the world.

Pamela Mason said...

What a great post and I love this to enrich a character. Plus it advances plot too! Thanks and sharing with my FB writers group!

Mary Ellen Quigley said...

I am currently writing a book where the main character is hiding a big secret. This is the first time I have done so. I love how much depth it is bringing to the story and how it is driving how the plot develops. Thanks for the great post.

Meda White said...

I'm working on edits for a book where my heroine has a past she's trying to run from, and very early on, she doesn't something she tries to hide from the hero. Talk about conflict. Thanks for sharing a great post, Aidee. :)

Meda White said...

Haha- I thought I previewed that message. She does something she needs to hide.

Aidee Ladnier said...

Thanks for sharing, Pamela!

Aidee Ladnier said...

I totally agree, Mary Ellen. It just changes everything about a character in one swoop.

Aidee Ladnier said...

Whoa, Meda. Sounds like your heroine has a few secrets she's going to have deal with. I can't wait to read it!

Louisa Cornell said...

Fabulous post! I have a hero who is hiding a secret and he discovers the secret is actually something different from what he thought it was. Worse, when he finally knows the truth revealing it will hurt the very person he believed responsible for him having to keep the secret.

Your post puts the entire thing in perspective! Sharing this one!

Aidee Ladnier said...

Thanks, Louisa! I'm glad I provided a little insight. Your story sounds deliciously complex!

Philisha Stephens said...

Great post Aidee. I do believe that having a secret in a book, even from the reader, inspires the reader to keep reading. Even when the writing is bad, they want to know what the secret is. I know I do.

Aidee Ladnier said...

I think you're right, Philisha. We're creatures that want to figure out everything.