From time to time I read advice that says novelists should create characters who have secrets. One such article, “5 Secrets about your Characters’ Secrets,” lists out ways that a writer can use characters’ secrets: to develop a plot twist, create conflict, for descriptive texture and intrigue, to use as part of the character reveal, and I’d add, as a source of on-going tension.
In fact, novelist L. D. Alford includes secrets on his list of tools to create tension. He explains the process:
The protagonist’s secrets are wonderful secrets—the trick is that the author can’t reveal them too early. This is an example of not showing (or telling) everything. I don’t like my readers to know anything that is not revealed through showing. To effectively use protagonist’s secrets, the author must only use showing to reveal and must not show everything.
There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets—not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations.
Secrets create questions, both for the other characters and for the reader. As other characters react to the existence of a secret or to its revelation, as the main character struggles to keep the secret, tension abounds. But the natural reaction to not knowing is wanting to know, so secrets generate curiosity. What are those marks on her arm which she keeps hidden? Why hasn’t she told her boyfriend that her parents died?
Mr. Alford also says in one post, “The most powerful use of secrets are those that are kept by the protagonist . . . and not shared immediately with the reader.”
Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only character who can have a secret.
I think, for example, of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in which a character named Dobby goes to Harry’s home in order to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. Harry can’t imagine why Dobby wants to keep him from going back, and the reader is just as much in the dark.
Later Harry learns that Dobby, a house elf, is trying to protect him from another wizard, one to whom Dobby is bound and who he cannot betray. Dobby’s secret turns into a full-blown “who wants to harm Harry” question which in turn creates tension throughout the book as one person after another falls under suspicion.
There is a limit, however, to the use of secrets. The author should not withhold the information from the reader that reveals the protagonist’s goal or plan. What the central character wants, drives the plot. If that desire is a secret, readers will be left out of the true quest.
Likewise, if the protagonist makes a plan to achieve his goal, a secret plan which the readers don’t know, they have no way of cheering for his success or fearing when obstacles crop up or enemies plot countermeasures.
In other words, if readers aren’t in the loop when it comes to the goals and plans the main character makes, the tension, which is the point and purpose of keeping secrets, will be lost.
Keeping secrets can powerfully aid a novelist when it comes to creating tension, but a line should be drawn when it comes to the goal of the protagonist and the plans he makes to reach his goals. These are essentials that readers must be aware of if they are to care for the character and hope for him or fear for him. They should not be withheld in the effort to give the protagonist an intriguing secret. Rather than creating tension, withholding the key to character motivation creates indifference.