Using Secrets in Your Stories

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Yesterday I read a blog post by David Corbett on character secrets. It started me thinking about how I use secrets in my own work-in-progress.

My story is a middle grade science fiction novel. There is political intrigue and global calamity and not surprisingly the adults have a lot of secrets. They don’t think that the young characters can handle the reality of the world the adults have created.

But my young characters? Only two of them have secrets, and neither one of these characters in my main character.

That is really bad. It is bad for the story because I could create so much more tension if my main character had a secret. That said, it isn’t going to be easy to pull off. She is outspoken and self-assured. She knows what she knows and has no problems telling someone when they are WRONG.

So what type of thing would an outspoken character keep secret? It would have to be something she was ashamed of. There are any number of possibilities. It could be . . .

  • A time she made a mistake. She’s incredibly smart which is a source of pride. What if she made an error in calculations and it caused a problem?
  • A time she didn’t correct someone else. What? On the face of it, this would seem to be very out of character. She loves to tell people when they are wrong. But what if she did it to create a problem for someone. A smart kid might well do this if it meant moving up in the class ranks while a rival moves down.
  • Another possibility would be my character doing something good for someone but not wanting everyone to know. I haven’t been able to think of a situation yet where this would work with my character but —
  • A situation where she thinks she is doing something good but causes a huge problem. What if she didn’t want someone to be embarrassed and thinks she sees a flaw in their work and corrects it only to discover that she didn’t know something and has actually created an error. Oh, yeah. This one could be fun.

Giving your character a negative secret can be a great way to create a flaw in a character. “But wait!” you think. “I’ve given my character a flaw.” So have I, but a secret is a great way to not only pull in a flaw but to give readers something they can identify with.

After all, most everyone has something they don’t want other people to know. What secrets do your characters have?