One way to get to know your characters is to have them reveal their secrets to you. Place yourself in each character’s shoes and try to have them talk through you—as if you were talking to a psychologist or a priest in a confessional.
In the chapter on The Secret Lives of Characters (The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Will Dunne) we are told that, “Characters with secrets have an objective (to conceal), a problem (the risk of exposure), and a motivation (enough at stake to require privacy).” That’s quite a truckload of treasure to help us enrich our stories.
Delve into your character and plot by having the character confess his or her secret, using the format offered below. What does the secret suggest about the character’s values? His or her psychological, sociological and physiological status? Next, write down ten actions the character might undertake to keep this secret hidden from the world.
Example: “I’ve got a secret about something I did in the past. I am Claudius in Hamlet. I killed Hamlet’s father, the king, so I could marry his wife and assume the throne of Denmark.”
This admission cuts to the heart of the character. It is easy to imagine why Claudius would behave in this way, given the gravity of his secret. His secret not only reveals his lack of values — his desire for power that has made him a murderer — it also explains his present and future actions: He fears disgrace and retribution if he’s found out. Knowing that Hamlet suspects him of the murder of his father, he tries to exile him and plots his death. This is how secrets turn actions into plot.
“Secrets are prodigious story generators.”
Example: In Primal Fear, defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is representing altar boy Aaron Stamper (Edward Norton) who is charged with murder. Aaron, who purportedly suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), claims his alter-ego “Roy” is responsible.
Aaron’s secret? “My name is Aaron Stamper and I don’t have DID! I am a sociopath and an exceptionally good actor.”
This secret is so central to the story that keeping it hidden drives the entire tale. The challenge is to keep the audience guessing.
Secrets, then, drive stories – use them to shape character and generate plot.
What is your character’s secret? Write down ten actions and their consequences that flow from it.