What a character might know that others don’t – including the audience
Some characters have secrets. We are not talking here about their internal problem or the need that arises out of it (they may be aware of such a problem or not.) We are talking about information that makes a difference to the story once it is shared.
Character secrets are intimately bound to the scene type called a reveal (which does not necessarily have to entail a revelation).
In terms of story (or rather the dramaturgy of the story), if a character has a secret that is never revealed, the secret is irrelevant. Only if the secret is made known at some point in the narrative does it really exist as a component of the plot.
For authors, the main aspects of character secrets to control are:
- What plot event brings the secret about (this may be a backstory event)?
- How does the secret alter or determine the character’s decisions or behaviour?
- Does the character share the secret with another character at any point, and if so when (in which scene)?
- At what point in the narrative (in which scene) does the audience receive knowledge of this secret?
Who are you, really?
If it is so important the character has a secret, then, often, the secret becomes part of who this character is. Their role in the story, their identity within the story, is determined by their secret. So secrets are dramaturgically important.
Let’s take the fairy tale topos of the girl who pretends to be a boy in order to be allowed (by the patriarchal system) on some sort of quest. Typically in such a story there will be a scene early in the narrative in which the girl makes the choice to hide her real identity. Later there may be a scene in which she reveals her secret to an ally, the prince or love interest. The audience, however, knows about this secret all along. It is probably the whole point of the story, part of its premise.
An alternative scenario may be the (somewhat clichéd) idea of a character interacting with others throughout the bulk of narrative, and at a key point in the second half of the story the identity of this character being revealed as the long-lost son, heir to and saviour of the family fortune, for instance. In such a story, the audience is surprised by the reveal just as much as the other characters.
More sophisticated versions of the idea of character identity being part of a big secret keep the audience guessing about who the character really is. For example, many dramatized versions of the story of Martin Guerre, the French peasant who returned to his wife and family many years after having left to go to war, play with the doubt about the returnee’s real identity, thus creating tension. Similarly, in Homeland the audience wonders whether Brody has been ‘turned’ or not (and [caution: spoiler alert] some of CIA officer Carrie’s erratic behaviour is later explained when the secret is revealed that she has a bipolar disorder).
Secrets can create and maintain the audience’ curiosity and ongoing interest. Throughout thousands of pages, Dumbledore keeps (an implausible amount) of secrets from Harry Potter and thereby from the audience. The gradual unveiling of the truths behind the foregrounded plot are part of J.K. Rowlings overall design of the entire series. In Harry Potter the point of view character is Harry, and we know more or less what he knows. But with a different story design, tension may also be created by trying to keep track of who is in on the secret and who is not, that is, who is fooling who. Take for instance The Talented Mr. Ripley, who lies to many characters but cannot conceal everything from everyone, and the fun for the audience is waiting for him to get caught out.
The protagonist in Sixth Sense has a secret and doesn’t know it [caution: spoiler alert]. This secret is effectively lifted in a big reveal at the end of the movie, when the audience discovers the hero died in an early scene and for the greater part of the narrative has actually been a ghost. This forces the audience to reconsider all the previous scenes in the light of the new information. By comparison, much of the enduring appeal of Blade Runner resides in the (even more effective) doubt around the main character Deckard’s identity – is he a (non-human) replicant or isn’t he? By not answering the question and maintaining the secret, the movie allows fans to discuss the various clues for years, and the film may be considered more of a classic than Sixth Sense.
Summing up the secret
In terms of narrative structure, the reveal of a major secret should best be placed at a key point in the plot, possibly at the midpoint, or the second pinch point or second plot point. Since many stories lead to a revelation scene (for instance in a crime story when the true identity of the murderer is revealed), it may be tempting to treat the reveal of a great secret as the great story revelation. One should consider, however, that the most effective revelations concern a sort of meta-level understanding of the story that creates a change in the audience’ understanding of the world or themselves, i.e. that they have learnt something through experiencing this story. The reveal of a character secret can rarely carry quite so much weight.
Concerning character secrets, it is crucial is that the author always remain aware of the state of knowledge each character has at every stage of the plot, so that each character can act and react according to the state of his or her knowledge at that particular moment. It may be quite different from what the audience knows, or other characters, creating effects of dramatic irony.
Conversely, if a character knows more than the audience and solves problems with the benefit of knowledge or objects that the audience is unaware of or did not know the character has, then the audience feels cheated at the reveal. In some stories, usually not the great ones, you see a hero at a crucial moment whip out some object or other that the audience had thought lost, and you gasp, “oh, he does still have the thing”. The idea is that we think the hero clever for slyly putting the thing in his pocket back when we thought it got lost. But let’s face it, this is a cheap trick.
Place the secret in your story: