3 Secrets Your Character Must Keep to Survive

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

In an age where everything about everybody somehow finds it’s way online, what we manage to keep to ourselves has become more and more difficult. Secrets are a universal human characteristic. We’ve all had one. We’ve all let one slip. Creating realistic characters requires creating their secrets as well.

But secrets can be a tricky thing. We need to empathize with why the character is keeping their secret, but the secret can’t make us hate the character either. Some secrets are despicable and hurt others more than they hurt the originator of the undisclosed truth. A character’s secret should be honorable, or at least redeemable, once it is revealed. In essence a secret is a lie, and if a character is going to lie, we need to believe that we would tell the same lie in an identical situation.

Here are three secrets your character should be able to keep.

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1. THE FRIENDLY SECRET

Some secrets are kept for the benefit of others. We keep the truth hidden to protect those we value. Although they’re technically a lie, friendly secrets are usually honorable and we admire the characters that keep them. Rocky Balboa keeps Adonis’s father’s identity a secret in Creed because he understands the desire to build one’s own reputation and not ride the coat tails of another’s success. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa sneaks four women out of a treacherous situation and keeps their secret, not for her own benefit, but because she believes in a greater cause. Poe Dameron keeps a droid’s location secret, even at the threat of torture, for the benefit of the Republic in The Force Awakens.  And though we might disagree with his politics, Rudolf Abel keeps Russia’s secrets in Bridge of Spies – a dangerous move that might cost him his life.

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2. THE SELFISH SECRET

Many secrets we keep because they benefit us directly. Our characters should be no different. However, we must be careful in executing secrets of this nature. If a secret is too selfish, the audience might not empathize with the character when the secret is revealed. At the core of the secret should be something universally understandable or even beautiful. Carol Aird keeps her love for Therese Belivet a secret to protect her relationship with her daughter in Carol.  Dalton Trumbo keeps his identity secret as he continues to write award-winning films in order to stay true to himself while feeding his family in Trumbo. Daniel Hillard dresses up as Mrs. Doubtfire so he can spend more time with his children. Michael Dorsey dresses up as Tootsie to get a much-needed job. As part of her job, Josie Geller goes incognito as a high school student in Never Been Kissed.

All these examples are noble reasons to hide a secret. However, sometimes characters keep secrets that are less than noble, but we can understand because perhaps we too have shared the embarrassment they feel. In Rushmore, Max Fischer tells people his father is a brain surgeon, when in actuality he is a barber. We understand that sometimes children keep secrets in order to make themselves look more important – and some never grow out of this habit. In Magnolia, Frank T.J. Mackey keeps his past a secret because of the pain and embarrassment it caused him. Most of us have some event in our past we would like to keep out of view, as well.

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3. THE SCARY SECRET

While the reasons a secret might be kept probably outnumber the stars, at the core of many of these reasons is fear. Some secrets are scary. We hide them out of trepidation. While knowing the truth might be a huge weight to bear for a character, the revelation of that truth could cause even greater danger for that person. Bridger carries a terrible secret in The Revenant – not over something he has done, but over something he saw happen and kept quiet about. The entire plot of Spotlight deals with the uncovering of secrets in the Catholic Church. Many of the characters that the Spotlight team encounters live in fear of their secrets being exposed. Virtually every character in The Hateful Eight is carrying a secret. The story moves around what secrets are revealed when, and by whom.

The creativity in our story will come from why a character keeps a secret and just what that secret is, but one element should always be present. The secret must come out. We can squirm with the character as they duck and dodge the truth, but in the end, the secret must surface. We must see the character face that thing they feared most. While in real life, secrets can go to the grave, in the world of story, they must have their day in the sun.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

One thought on “3 Secrets Your Character Must Keep to Survive

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  1. “We can squirm with the character as they duck and dodge the truth, but in the end, the secret must surface.”
    This is true unless you are writing a tragic story. A great example is Match Point, where the protagonist manages to keep the secret but the final close-up shot reveals how devastated he is (and will be forever) on the inside.
    Great tips, thank you for posting.

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