Shhh…I’ve got a secret

In a recent post, Ben Lane Hodson wrote about a few of Joss Whedon’s writing techniques. My favorite one was “Give every character a secret.”

Why is this such an important, yet simple, technique for writing? Because as humans, we all have secrets. When I read that tip from Joss, it was a smack-your-head moment for me. I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it when writing. No matter whether we’re talking about our friends or the characters we’re creating on page, people’s motives and lives are highly influenced by the secrets they hold.

Think about the massive secret Ben Kenobi withheld from Luke Skywalker and how it ended up shaping the boy’s life.

Think about your two friends who start acting odd around you, and then you find out years later that they had a one night stand.

Think about Professor Snape.

Secrets shape us, define our motives, create challenges for us to overcome or try to live down. And when it comes to writing fiction, characters with secrets will have those same things in their lives. Maybe these are secrets only the character and the reader knows. Maybe the reader only finds out the secret near the end of the story. Or maybe the secret is just between the author and the character. That secret still motivates the character’s actions, even if the reader never knows about it.

An author might create a protagonist who is a loving, doting husband, prone to showering his wife with gifts. Sure, this is something some husbands do (so I’ve heard). But where might the story take us if this specific husband is acting this way because ten years earlier he had an affair and has never forgiven himself for cheating on his wife? Even if that is never revealed in the story, if the author knows that is in the character’s past, it could have great implications on the husband’s personality. Perhaps he still feels like a horrible wretch and nothing he does is good enough for his wife in his eyes. Possibly he sees actions of hers as “signs” that she is cheating on him, recognizing things he did ten years before.

He has a secret and it’s eating away at him. Or it’s making him be a better man. Or he has an unknown child somewhere who shows up. Secrets shape us, and if we want to write realistic characters, they should shape them as well.

Use the comment section to talk about how secrets (or lack of) have influenced your writing.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! My favorite tip was also the “secret” for characters. I never realized that about Whedon until this presentation but he totally does that with almost every character.

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