How To Discover Secrets Your Characters Keep From You

Your characters have secrets. The secrets your characters keep are often (almost always) hidden even from you, the author. This happens because you write more than you realize; your characterizations conceal hidden folds. Today we’re going to talk about how you can break open these secrets, and suck out the hidden parts of your characters that drive them through the story. (As insight into your characters is one of the hallmarks of lasting fiction, this will make you a better writer.)

They’re Keeping Secrets, Huh?

Character Secrets

Character secrets develop from your energy; you write down, often unconsciously, genuine patterns of energy that you have experienced in your own life. You might include touches of conversation you’ve had with people, or elements of emotion that you have experienced, either in your own body, or when reading or watching someone else’s work. When you write down these patterns you’ve absorbed, it is as if you are writing down markers, or outlines, of human types. Inside the heart of each human type is a deep, dark, closely-held secret. Great fiction drags the aftermath of these secrets out into the light, and showcases their results for the readers’ enjoyment. So part of your job, as an author, is not only to write down these markers of deeper meaning, but then to find out their underlying causes.

I Still Don’t Know What You Mean, Victor Poole. Can You Give Me An Example?

I have written before about Ocher, a character from my fantasy series. When I wrote him, I based his physical body on a military relative I have. Now, here is where the hidden secret comes into play. My relative, who is a large and violent person, is terrified of sleeping. I mean, on a pathological level, but you would never, ever know this. I think possibly his wife knows, but he hides this secret very well. (I know things like this because sniffing out secrets is my specialty; I have an imaginary PhD in Reading Human Beings.) How this secret translates into fiction is that Ocher, or the physical body component of Ocher, desperately avoids rest and peacefulness at all costs. Why? Because to him, sleep is like death; he is terrified of the oblivion of slumber.

How Do I Use This Kind of Secret in My Writing, Victor?

A secret like this, a true, deep secret, is something that you, as the author, don’t actually reveal. It is like the inside of a shiny product that is not meant to be opened—like a blender. You buy the blender so that you can blend things. You don’t pry open the casing and prod about at the wiring inside; unless you are a mechanical hobbyist, such an act would defeat the purpose of buying a blender.

So it is with fiction; there are dynamics within the work that need to remain hidden; to reveal them openly to the reader would negate the functionality of the work as a whole. So Ocher’s terror of sleeping is never, ever brought up, even glancingly, in any of the books in which he is featured (he’s in books 3-5, and 7-9). But Ocher’s pathological fright at the idea of sleeping shapes his whole character, and drives his arc.

Well, Cool. Show Me How To Find Out Secrets In My Own Characters, Victor Poole!

Let’s get started. The first thing you need to understand is that your body and your mind are a highly-tuned machine; this means that you know things right now that you are not aware of knowing. For example, you may write something like this:

Mabel drew a brush through her hair, and studied the texture of her skin. I’m not getting any younger. Her eyes lingered over the crow’s feet that were gradually appearing at the corners of her eyes, and her tongue glided along the rim of her lips. He said it was cheap; said it was mostly painless. Mabel breathed out sharply, and slammed the hairbrush down on the bathroom counter.

Here we have Mabel, who is thinking of purchasing an experimental skin-grafting treatment that will, reputedly, restore her skin to a younger glory.

Let’s dig down a layer deeper; we will sit down with Mabel, and ask her a series of questions; as she is our character, she will have no choice but to give us some manner of answer.

Us: Mabel, why do you want younger skin?

Mabel: I don’t want to answer this kind of question.

Us: I’ll make you fifty years older if you don’t answer me.

There is a short silence.

Mabel: I don’t like the way I look.

Us: Why don’t you?

Mabel: Because I look horrible.

Us: Now you have pitted acne scars. I just decided that would be part of your character.

Mabel slaps her hands to her cheeks, and cries out.

Mabel: No, no! Stop, take them back! I’ll tell you anything!

We wait patiently.

Mabel: I think I look like a chicken.

Us: A chicken?

Mabel (growing quite angry): Yes, I look like the chickens that my grandfather plucked. I was a little girl, and he would pluck the chickens after he chopped their heads, and the skin was all bumpy and pink where the feathers came out. I want skin like smooth ivory. I don’t want to look like a chicken.

Us: Thank you, Mabel. I took away the acne scars.

Mabel runs away crying.

Gosh, You’re Mean, Victor! But What Now?

Now that we know Mabel’s secret, we can write any scene at all for her, and her motivation will be thoroughly grounded. We know now that she will buy the skin graft, and we know that if anything goes wrong at all, she will descend slowly into bitterness, self-hatred, and eventual villainy (driven by the unfairness of life). If she does become a villain, she will target the young and beautiful, and surround herself with men and women who have the coarsest, bumpiest skin possible. We now have Mabel’s deepest, darkest secret. When you own the character, the character will perform well for you.

Well, There You Are

Digging into your characters’ deepest, most closely-held secrets will give you the power to write them in any situation, and under any emotional duress, with sureness, power, and grounded insight. Mabel’s fear of looking like a chicken, in our example, will never, ever be mentioned at all in the book about her. Chickens will never be written about; there will be no feather metaphors, or mentions of skin texture. Mabel’s secret will form the engine of her motivation; it will be hidden from the reader, but you will know it, and your knowledge of Mabel will lead to insightful and powerful writing. Sit your characters down, one by one, and interrogate them until you find what you are looking for. Keep their secrets for them, but know what the secrets are.

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