What’s most fascinating about meeting someone new is that you gradually learn who they are, how they think, and what events may have shaped their lives. On the flip side, the most boring way to introduce a character in a story is to let us learn everything about that character right up front.
For minor characters, it’s not necessary to know much about them but for any of the major characters, you absolutely must dribble out information about who that character is by their own actions and by the way others react to them.
To do this, you need to give each character a secret. A secret can be something the character keeps hidden from both he audience and other characters, or it can be something kept hidden just from other characters but known to the audience.
When a secret is hidden from other characters and the audience, the revelation of that secret is often a major turning point in the story. In “Ghost,” the hero is shocked to learn that his co-worker and supposed friend was the man who hired someone to mug him. In “The Sixth Sense,” the hero is shocked to learn that the boy he was helping had known about his real status as a person all along. In general, other major characters often hide a secret from the audience and the other characters for maximum shock value.
The hero’s mentor often has a haunted past that’s a secret to the audience and the hero. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero’s mentor is the old man who works as a handyman in the hero’s apartment building. He appears harmless but only later do we (and the hero) learn about the mentor’s painful past. The mentor needs a painful past that can only be made better through the hero defeating the villain.
In “Die Hard,” the hero’s mentor is the black policeman who reveals that he accidentally shot a kid and hans’t been able to pull his gun out since then.
Sometimes characters reveal secrets to the audience but not to other characters. This creates tension and suspense as we wait to find out how the other characters will react.
In “The Hateful Eight,” a woman being held by a bounty hunter witnesses someone pouring poison in the coffee pot, but she fails to tell anyone. Now the big question is why didn’t she tell anyone, who put the poison in the coffee pot (and why), and what will happen next when the other characters learn about the poison.
Perhaps the biggest secret comes from the hero. The hero’s big secret is that he or she wants a physical goal, but may not realize that what he or she really needs is an emotional goal.
Pick a physical goal for the hero and it will be clear and straightforward. Yet if all the hero does is achieve a physical goal, the move will be relatively flat and uninteresting. In “Die Hard,” the hero wants to get back with his wife, yet all those “Die Hard” clone movies created a nearly identical goal. What made “Die Hard” better was that the hero suddenly realized what he really needed was the emotional goal of admitting he was at fault for the break-up with his wife in the first place.
Your hero’s secret is really a secret from him or herself. The hero thinks he or she needs one thing (a selfish goal), but ultimately realizes he or she actually needed something else (a selfless goal to help others):
- “Avatar” — The hero thinks he needs to get his legs back, but he really needs is to find a purpose for his life
- “Titanic” — The hero thinks she needs to get away from an arranged marriage, but she really needs to define her own life
- “Star Wars” — The hero think he needs to get off his boring planet, but he really needs to trust himself
- “Up” — The hero thinks he needs to move his house to a tropical paradise, but he really needs to embrace life as an adventure again
- “Little Miss Sunshine” — The hero think she needs to compete in a beauty pageant, but she really needs to bring her family together
Secrets are crucial because it creates surprise, suspense, and ultimately defines an emotionally satisfying ending when the hero discovers the biggest secret about him or herself that he or she may not have realized at the beginning.
Giver every major character a secret. It will make your story far more interesting and compelling.