What is Your Character Hiding: The Power of Secrets

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From Writer Unboxed:

In Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Joanna Hunter, whose mother, sister, and baby brother were murdered by a lunatic when she was six years old, explains to a police officer why she tells no one about this: “People look at you differently when they know you’ve been through something terrible. It’s the thing about you that they find most interesting.”

Most people, however—and characters—do not harbors secrets out of fear of being “interesting.” On the contrary, what we choose to keep hidden, and why we do so, says a great deal about what we fear, if exposed, will undermine or even destroy our standing among our friends and family, community and peers. That fear may be unreasonable, out of all proportion, but that’s far less important than that it exists—especially for writers.

Secrets provide writers with an intrinsically valuable way of conjuring depth in a character—there is automatically an inside and an outside, what is concealed and what is revealed. And the tension created by the character’s decision to conceal something about themselves provides an immediate dramatic payoff—we can’t help wondering what they’re hiding, why they’re hiding it, and what will happen if the secret is revealed.

Secrets also provide an economical way to depict vulnerability—the very fact a secret is being kept means the character fears being exposed.

That threat—of being exposed or “found out,” and therefore ostracized or abandoned—is one of the key dreads of existence. In a sense, our secrets hint at the isolation we associate with death, and our keeping them hidden is part of the magical thinking we perpetuate as part of the ritual of life.

The mask we call our ego or persona is crafted on the premise of concealing our fears, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities—our secrets. Instead we display to the world our confident, competent selves—with some allowances for self-effacing humor and sociable humility.

A great deal of modern drama is premised upon the peeling away of the mask concealing our secret selves, and the struggle to summon the courage and honesty to deal with the consequences of being known more authentically, more completely.

It may be that there is no such thing as living without a mask, and that the stripping away of one simply predicates the donning of another. It may be that what I think of as my honest self is really just a different one: slightly less dishonest, defensive, deluded. But it remains true that whatever mask I wear, its purpose isn’t mere concealment; it’s also protection.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed