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On Characters with Secrets

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Anonymous asked: “I’ve heard that a good way to build characters is for them to have a secret. My trouble is that I don’t know what secret to give even ONE of them. Any help?”

Of course! Secrets are fun! I think almost all of my characters across the board have had some kind of secret. They are especially great because most of the time, they generate some kind of conflict. If you are having trouble giving your characters secrets, there is a chance that you’re being protective and don’t want to see them hurt. This is a natural tendency, but it’s time to rip off the band-aid. 

Fair warning: You may have to let your characters be bad people. 

There are of course innocent secrets – little girls have secret crushes all the time. No one is at fault in that kind of secret, but still there’s risk. Someone can get hurt. If suddenly the whole neighborhood knows about her crush, she’ll be heartbroken. The poor thing. Secrets tend to do bad things when they get out. 

Let’s stick with this example: Her crush might not want to talk to her – especially if they’d been friends. Her secret once revealed will make both of them examine their relationship. While it would be great if her crush would say, “I don’t feel that way about you but I value our friendship,” – that takes maturity. That takes a lot of maturity and isn’t often what happens. Even when it does happen, it is even harder for the little girl to decide to say, “Let’s just stay friends. I would rather have you as a friend than not at all.” That is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It takes maturity and emotional control to be okay with that. 

Understand just how difficult it is for people to do the “right” thing. The right thing is hard and painful and can lead to more secrets. The little girl might be okay with just staying friends with her crush but really, once her crush takes an interest in someone else, she might not be so okay with it anymore. 

Anyway, the secret I picked as an example is harmless. It’s innocent, but also, it’s devastating. Imagine what can happen if the secret is less innocent – like an affair or a murder. While you want your characters to do the right thing, the right thing is hard. 

Imagine your protagonist suspects that their older brother is somehow involved in a recent murder. The right thing is probably to tell the police, but that doesn’t seem like the right thing. You might have your character go talk to their brother, try to get the truth out, but the thing is people lie all the time. Does your character trust that their brother is telling the truth? It is also “the right thing” to trust him. This is where characters who are good people can get caught up in very messy situations – situations that may lead to them doing the wrong thing, even if it is understandable or well intended. 

When writing with secrets, make sure that you let characters be who they are. There won’t be a right answer in a lot of situations. Secrets lead to messy conflicts. Don’t be afraid to let things get messy. 

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