Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Characters Who Keep Secrets

Can a point of view character keep a big secret, without losing the reader's sympathy? That was the subject of a program I presented last week to the Central Iowa Fiction Writers group in Des Moines, Iowa. And the answer is YES -- if the author is careful.

Here are the rules for playing fair with the reader:

Only keep important secrets.

If it’s important enough, it should be secret.
Give the character a good reason to finally break down and tell the truth.
Don’t tease.
Ask the normal questions.
Have another character ask or answer the obvious question.
Tell the truth wherever possible.
Don’t lie, no matter what.
Divert the reader’s attention to something else.
Foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow.

What do you think? Let's talk!


  1. I have wondered how this can be pulled off so many times. As a reader, I LOVE being shocked when secrets come out, but I've never managed to identify why it worked for me and didn't just tick me off.

    So when you say 'ask the normal questions' and have characters do so, and tell the truth... this makes me think that the secret has to be something that is extremely unusual? Otherwise, how do you play fair with the foreshadowing and question answering without making it guessable.

    So hard!

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  3. That's a great question from Amalie. If a character is being asked the normal questions AND assuming they are answering them is the secret being kept?

    I think I've read more secrets being kept by misdirection. Or...I've read some successful characters who's internal dialogue refused to go in the direction that would have revealed the secret.

    I think it's psychologically possible to have an issue so painful or disruptive to our daily functioning that our minds provide a form of defense. Our minds can burying that knowledge so deep...that it takes something powerful to force us to finally bring it out and acknowledge it.

    Definitely a hard device to use in writing. :D

  4. Amalie, the way to ask the normal questions -- so the other characters don't look like fools -- and still keep the secret is for the character who's keeping the secret to answer truthfully but indirectly. If the hero sees a baby crib set up in the heroine's house, he's going to ask about the baby. If she then gives a truthful answer -- "I kept my friend's toddler last weekend" -- everybody's happy with the answer, and we usually don't stop to wonder whether it's the entire, 100 percent accurate, story-of-her-life answer.

    Lynda, it IS true that some things are just so painful we don't want to think about them -- and that's true of characters, too. Some characters will pick at scabs, of course. But many won't -- they don't want to think about past painful events or people, and so they will shy away from it. Their thoughts will approach, glance off, avoid -- and we can use those things to hint to the reader that there's something here which is going to be important, without sharing it all.

    Only when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same will someone really take out that issue and study it closely. That can be a powerful force at the end of a story -- the hero's love for the heroine is so strong that he can't bear to continue to shield his hurt, so he's willing to battle through it and deal with it so he can be with her...