Home » Can My Characters Have Secrets? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

Can My Characters Have Secrets?

Can My Characters Have Secrets? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Today I’m talking about secrets.

I was recently browsing through Facebook when an interesting question caught my eye. An author was asking if characters can keep secrets from the reader.

There are two parts to this question. The first is this: Can a character have a secret?

Yes. A character with a secret is a good character:

Any character with a credible, interesting secret has a good chance of coming alive.

– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, Chapter Five

That is especially true if the character is one of the main characters, a point of view character. We want the character to have secrets. And we want to know those secrets, because that’s how we get to know the character:

Bonding with characters is achieved through intimacy … the greatest intimacy is achieved when we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. When we get to go inside their heads.

– James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, Chapter Two

But that leads us to the second part of the question: Can the point of view character hold secrets back from the reader?

Yes, but then you’re placing an artificial barrier between the reader and your character. If we were truly inside their heads, we’d know their secrets. Withholding secrets prevents intimacy. And point of view is all about intimacy.

Are you prepared to trade secrets for intimacy?

Let’s use some examples.

I’ve recently read the Criss Cross trilogy by CC Warrens. The three novels are all in first person, from the point of view of Holly, a tramatised twenty-eight-year-old photographer living as close to off the grid as anyone can live in modern New York. Holly has intimacy issues. So it works that Holly keeps secrets from those around her … and from the reader.

We find out more about Holly as the stories progress, as she begins to face her fears, make friends, and trust others with her secrets. That’s why she’s keeping secrets from the reader (and from her newfound friends). It’s a protection mechanism. She can’t cope with remembering how she’s been “hurt”.

Holly’s secrets drive the tension which drive the novels forward. And that’s what makes this a brilliant series.

But this is the exception.

What’s more common is that an untold secret robs the story of tension. For example, I once read a novel where a young woman moves from Ireland to the United States. She’s hiding from something or someone, but we don’t know who or what. All we know is that she has a secret which has sent her into hiding.

Hint: if you don’t want the evildoers to find you, don’t leave a paper trail wider than the Amazon. Between the passport, the airline tickets, the marriage licence, the gym membership, the library membership (all in her own name), there was never any doubt the evildoer would find her.

Anyway, the story goes on and on with references to this secret and how horrible it will be if the unknown evildoer finds her. Every mention of the unknown secret made it bigger and bigger, until I’m thinking this woman must have some ginormous secret. Maybe she’s the secret love child of two ultra-famous people. Maybe she’s got the US nuclear launch codes tattoed on her back. Maybe she’s the only person who knows who committed the crime of the century.

I didn’t know what her secret was, but it was obviously big and unique. Something that had never happened to anyone else in all of human history, or in any novel previously published.

But no. It turned out she’d fallen pregnant after being raped, and was forced to give up the baby. That actually made a lot of sense given her actions in the novel (e.g. joining the gym to get rid of the baby fat, and her fear of her marriage-of-convenience husband). But it was a complete letdown as a plot point, because it felt anticlimactic. Unfortunately, women being raped, falling pregnant, and not keeping their babies is all too common, both in real life and in fiction.

I’m convinced it would have been a stronger story if we’d known her secret from page one. Then we could have empathised with her situation, cheered as she achieved small victories on the road to normal. And there still would have been plenty of tension: would she allow herself to recover? Could she learn to trust men again? Could she fall in love with her marriage-of-convenience husband? Would she tell him her secret?

Keeping the secret turned the climax into an anticlimax.

Readers allow the narrator to withhold the ending, as long as he tells us at each stage in the story all that the character knew at that point in time … [not] hold back information until the end of the story … The author who does this usually thinks she’s increasing the suspense. In fact, she’s weakening the suspense by decreasing the readers’ involvement with and trust in the narrator.

– Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Chapter 16

Sharing the secret with the reader is a great way to enhance the conflict and add to the tension.

The other characters don’t need to know the point of view character’s secrets. But the reader does.

A good recent example of this is Shadows of Hope by Georgiana Daniels. The main character, Marissa, is infertile but works in a pregnancy crisis centre. One of her clients is pregnant to Marissa’s husband—except only the reader knows this (well, Kaitlyn obviously knows she’s pregnant to Colin, but Kaitlyn doesn’t even know Colin is married, let alone who he is married to).

Marissa, Kaitlyn, and Colin are all point of view characters. We know what they know, and we also know the secrets they don’t know. This tension keeps the story moving forward as we wait for the inevitable dust-up when everyone discovers what we already know. The story would have no power or tension if it was told entirely from Marissa’s point of view (or Kaitlyn’s, or Colin’s).

The secrets drove the story.

And the result was I could feel and empathise with both Marissa and Kaitlyn. (Colin? Not so much.) Marissa knew her marriage was in trouble, but infertility isn’t an easy problem with a quick fix like, say, a root canal. Kaitlyn believed Colin loved her, and that he’d man up and marry her as soon as he found out she was pregnant. As a reader, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, because I knew about Marissa. But Kaitlyn didn’t know, and that enhanced the suspense.

So can a character keep secrets from the reader?

Yes.

But keeping secrets comes at a price—intimacy, empathy, tension, and conflict.

Is having your character keep their secret worth the price?

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24 comments

  1. Adam says:

    I agree with everything you said.
    I think part of the challenge is the level of “point of view”. The deeper the POV goes, the less room there is for secrets between POV character and audience, though I have seen one technique work very well.
    Sometimes a character may not need to “think about the secret” itself. For example, in Mistborn, one of the main characters repeatedly thought about the fact that he was keeping something from the others, but because it was a painful thought, he often “stopped himself” at the regret, without ever thinking about the secret itself.
    I remember, in Dune, there was a character who had a secret that was so central to their thoughts that any scene told from their POV referred to it regularly, like a chorus in a song.

    I think emotional pain is the easiest way.
    Though it would be interesting to see a POV character keep secrets from the audience for fun, knowing full well that they are being “watched”.

    I think the most common form is not so much “a secret” as “information that has not been relevant until now.”

    Most stories do not begin with birth, and therefore, to an extent, there are always things the audience doesn’t know about the POV character(s).
    In the Belgariad series, the audience doesn’t learn about one major character’s wife until he is forced to visit her. It just never comes up.

    I think you are right that an avoided secret is a delicate thing, and I think your observation about the trade-off between secret and intimacy is a very sharp observation.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Iola says:

      I like the Mistborn approach – as long as the payoff is worth it. That’s similar to the approach in the Criss Cross series (but even there we got hints of what “hurt” meant, because of what she was afraid of).

      I don’t remember that secret in Dune – it’s close to 30 years since I read it (which shows I’m getting old). But I still remember the Litany of Fear!

      There have been some novels with unreliable narrators (as Raimey mentions in her comment), but I don’t know of any who have kept secrets for fun. But it could work … although perhaps for the antagonist rather than the protagonist.

      You make a good point in that there is a balance between the character having a secret, and there being things about the character the reader doesn’t need to know yet. That’s a mistake a lot of new authors make, dumping character history into the beginning of a novel. It’s better to tease out the information, as long as that doesn’t get in the way of the plot. To use your Belgariad example, it’s okay if we don’t know Character X is married, as long as it hasn’t been previously mentioned that he was single, and as long as it’s not relevant to the plot.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Shadows of Hope sounds like the plotline for Dr. Foster, which I loved. This is such great advice. I’m getting a little weary of overuse of the unreliable narrator, where the resolution feels unfair to the reader to a degree, in some cases… 🙂 It’s a tight line to walk.

    • Iola says:

      I haven’t seen Dr Foster, but if that’s the plot then I should!

      I agree about the unreliable narrator. There has to be a good reason for that to work, and it is a tight line. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Louise says:

    Great points 🙂 I think if characters have secrets they should be ‘in-character,’ and there should be hints throughout the story so the secret doesn’t come as a huge shock to the reader. I prefer to get to know characters and empathise with them though, which is much easier to do if they aren’t hiding things from me 🙂

    • Iola says:

      I think that’s important – it’s hard to like a character when we know they are keeping something from us. It’s like in real life – keeping secrets introduces a barrier between people.

  4. J.J. Burry says:

    Great post! My MC has a secret, but readers know about it from almost the beginning.

    I like the question you’ve added about is the secret worth the risk. It’s definitely something to consider in every story we write.

  5. Kristina says:

    I look forward to your post every month. You have a great way of explaining things in an interesting way. I think secrets is a topic that’s not covered often, so this was very helpful. Thanks.

    • Iola says:

      As a reader, I’m reading for that dance around the truth, for the storm I can see coming. It’s a great way to build natural conflict!

  6. Erika Beebe says:

    I really like your point about revealing to the reader the pieces of the story they absolutely need to see. In my humble opinion, if they don’t know something about the motive then how will they ever relate to specific characters? Lovely post 🙂

    • Iola says:

      I try not to think of writing craft when I’m reading for pleasure, but that’s a good point – we make it a lot harder for the reader to relate to the character if the character’s motivation isn’t clear. Great point!

  7. The questions posed are interesting and your post very informative. I hadn’t thought much about characters having secrets from the reader. It seems this would be best accomplish writing in first person where the thoughts of the main protagonist are portrayed (or hidden) more easily. I frequently have characters hiding secrets from other characters, but I can’t recall ever hiding a character’s secret from the readers. I’ll need to try it.

    • Iola says:

      Thanks, Donn.

      You make a good point in the difference between first person and third person. It’s relatively easy for a non-POV character to have a secret – they just have to not talk about it. But a POV character has to also not think about it, at least not in the scenes where they are the POV character.

      I’ll be interested in your experiment in keeping secrets!

  8. Chrys Fey says:

    I love it when my characters have a secret. I clue my readers in soon enough but keep other characters in the dark longer.

    Another time, I kept the secret from my readers and my other MC, and it worked out great because it wasn’t a huge secret that impacted the plot. It was more of an ah-ha moment and tied into my characters’ feelings for each other.

    • Iola says:

      That’s a good distinction – the secret which is central to the plot, vs. the a-ha moment. You can certainly hold back the smaller secrets. It’s a matter of revealing information at the best possible time.

  9. This is an excellent post, Iola! Thank you so much for this insight into secrets in stories. Seriously, I need to bookmark this post. I’ve also shared it online. Thanks again for sharing this.

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