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