What's Her Secret?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Don't you just love a good character flaw? How about a big, fat, juicy secret that your protagonist wants to hide? Was there an embarrassing affair, or is she a high-school drop out who conveniently forgets to disclose that information on job applications? Did she get a DWI, or play a role in an unfortunate “incident” that could stand in the way of a security clearance?

In my last post I wrote that good writing is about putting yourself in the audience's shoes, and letting the reader experience what the character feels. And often, what we see and feel isn't comfortable. Many popular protagonists are barely hanging on due to a shady past, bad relationships, self-destructive habits, or character flaws.

Conflict builds tension. Will the secret get out? Will the protagonist be able to keep her job long enough to save the company from bankruptcy? The clock is ticking as information that could get the hero fired is sent to the Human Resources Department. The H.R. clerk (Clerky) who normally checks these emails is at a seminar, (whew) and won't be back until tomorrow.

But wait, her nosy colleague's computer is broken, (or is it?) so he decides to check email on Clerky’s computer. And he knows Clerky’s password. And did I mention he wants Clerky’s job? Meanwhile, our hero is meeting with the bankers, trying to make a deal to keep the company afloat. What will happen? Will the deal be negotiated before the email is opened and she's automatically fired? Turn the page to find out.

Use secrets and character flaws to build conflict in your story. Determine the one piece of information your protagonist doesn’t want anyone to know, and start there. Then advance the story by increasing the tension that comes from hiding that weakness, flaw, or secret. Although the hero may not like having a secret that could ruin her life, your readers will love you for it!

Mary Horner is the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges. She also blogs at writRteachR.blogspot.com.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--I think the idea of beginning with a secret is a good one. The under-the-surface character's development is crucial.

How about you? Do you have a WIP that began with a secret?

Angela Mackintosh said...

I've been reading a lot of thrillers lately, and I've noticed that sometimes there are so many character flaws in the protagonist that it makes them unlikeable--especially with unreliable narrators. But in plot-driven novels, I'll hang in there because I want to know the outcome or find out how the murder happened. I think it's a great idea to start with a secret!

Renee Roberson said...

Mary--I'm working on something right now where the protagonist doesn't really have any secrets but her best friend does. Do you think works just as well or should I throw another doozy in there with the main character?

Mary Horner said...

Sioux, I realized earlier this year that both of my protagonists were boring, so I am making some changes to show the internal-external battles they are both fighting to make them more interesting (hopefully!).

And Angela, I like the fact that you can use the secret to build tension. Honestly, I was watching Leave It to Beaver one afternoon, and I saw three episodes where Beaver kept doing something wrong, then trying to hide it, and the tension came from wondering when and if Ward and June would find out!

Renee, I like the idea of the best friend having a big secret, and I'm sure that will work with keeping us guessing as we wonder when the protagonist will find out, and how it will affect her!

Donna Volkenannt said...

It's so true that secrets create conflict, both internal and external. Thanks for this advice, Mary, and I agree with some of the comments others have left, especially about unreliable narrators and unlikable characters.

Pat Wahler said...

It's all about the conflict. Secrets are a great way of amping up the tension in a story.


Linda O'Connell said...

Yes, conflict is what the reader seek. Thanks for this reminder.

Mary Horner said...

I forget to do that, Donna, Pat, and Linda, and need a reminder myself!

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