Writing Your Character’s Big Secrets

We’ve all heard that our stories must contain rising tension
and plenty of conflict. As a new writer, I thought that meant stuff had to blow
up to make the conflict apparent. Boy, was I wrong!

Writing Tip for Today: To maximize tension and conflict,
force your character to reveal her biggest, darkest secrets. Here are some ideas:

Trace Her Past

To help your reader understand the character’s darkest fears and secrets, the writer must first know what, how, when, and why stuff has already happened to create those closet skeletons. The more you know about your character’s background and past, the better you’ll be able to write your character’s motivations into the story.

If your protagonist has sworn off relationships after being
hurt or jilted, you as writer must know all the details of what happened to
make her so closed off. This is key, because the deep reason for her fear or
avoidance will also be the way your hero unlocks her heart.

A note here about characters who are mostly the writer: When we model characters based upon our own lives, we tend to color the details and avoid some of the most painful parts of our experiences. This may translate into a character who feels shallow, because you are holding back. Readers easily spot this protection and will quickly judge the work inauthentic. If you’re going to make your character some version of you, be willing to look deep within. Don’t hold back—especially the unflattering bits. Readers can spot this holding back and you’ll lose them.

Paint Him into a Corner

In many stories, the character is forced to reveal/face fears/secrets the same way ranchers treat cattle—gradually, they force the cows into a narrow chute. Likewise, squeeze your character tighter with each scene, ultimately forcing him/her to deal with the thing he/she hates or fears the most.

One way to do this is by imposing a time limit. If character can’t do X by a certain day/time, the opportunity is lost. If the heroine can’t rally the townspeople to support her cause, the evil developers will pave paradise. You get the idea.

You can funnel your character into revealing deep secrets by
making her burn bridges with other characters. When your character stands
alone, has lost everything, it’s easier for her to see the light and break free
from her prison of fear/secrets.

Hold Her Feet to the Flame

Many writers avoid conflict in their stories—that’s how we
get along in life. But life and story aren’t the same. In story, readers can
see what might occur if they hadn’t just given up on something or walked away
from a relationship. In real life we spend a lot of time trying to ease
conflict, so when we write, that same conflict makes us uncomfortable.

But to keep readers, we all must force ourselves to stay in the fight. We can’t afford to let our character avoid a fight. And letting someone else bail out our character (known as deus ex machina) feels cheap and unsatisfying. Especially in children’s stories, the temptation is to allow parents/grown-ups to solve the problem. Resist! Your reader is following your character to see if that character can pull herself out of a jam. That’s why so many books/movies about kids have so few adults in the story. Readers want the protagonist to solve the problems on their own.

Know your character’s past, paint them slowly into a corner
and never let them off the hook. When your character finally reveals the deep
dark secret, your readers will cheer.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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