Posted On April 30, 2010 by Print This Post

The Dirty Little Secrets of Character Development

Welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing day! Author Keena Kincaid is here to answer your questions about how secrets motivate characters at the deepest level and how these secrets, when properly revealed, propel the plot forward in a logical, engaging manner and can cement or destroy your hero or heroine’s romance. Sound like fun? Knowing Keena as a do, it’s sure to be a fun day!

Take it away, Keena!

Good morning. I’m so glad to be a visiting “professor” at Romance University and I hope we can have a great discussion on secrets and how we can use them to drive the plot—and the romance—forward.

I love finding out my characters have a big secret because it gives them an emotional depth that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise (and, yes, I’m a pantser). I’ve also found that by exposing the layers of smaller lies and the habits my characters develop to keep that secret, I can still give readers plot twists that take the story in an unexpected direction without them throwing the book against the wall.

I fully examine this topic in-depth in The Dirty Little Secrets of Character Development workshop, but there are a few rules of the road that we will explore today.

  • It’s not enough to have secrets; your character’s secret must complicate her life to the extent that she will take action, preferably extreme action, to keep the secret.  She may lie, steal, forge documents, or even consider killing someone. Regardless of what she does, it’s these actions that drive the plot forward.
  • The depths—or heights—to which your heroine (or hero) goes to keep his secret must change the way the she sees herself, which sparks character change. She must want to change, but be conflicted about it, too, because it’s hard and scary to reveal this secret. Eventually, she will be willing to face the consequences of her actions and her secret rather than continue on her current course.
  • Consequences need to be real. Whether it’s the nature of the secret or the actions required to keep it secret, the consequences must jeopardize the happy-ever-after (HEA). Otherwise, your readers have no stake in the outcome.

The heart of the matter

The critical component is having a core secret that is wrapped in layers of smaller secrets and self-deception. And you peel back those layers one by one, chapter by chapter, until the core secret is exposed and your character is left emotionally naked and vulnerable.

If that isn’t torturing your characters, I’m not sure what is.

For example, in my first book ANAM CARA, my hero’s core secret—that he’s a seer who most clearly sees death—drives almost every single action of his life, whether made by him or for him. Bran can’t control it. He looks at someone and he knows how he or she will die. And he’s been keeping this knowledge secret for so long that he no longer knows how deeply it affects his choices.

The catalyst for the story is his vision of his younger brother’s death. And when Bran suspects the heroine could save his brother’s life, he must decide whether to trust her—or lie and hope he’s not found out until his brother is safe.

Naturally, he lies.

And though his guilt becomes heavier as he falls in love with Liza, our heroine, Bran doesn’t reveal his secrets until he has no other choice.

Only with the very last secret does Bran step out on faith that Liza will not reject him. His internal conflict is to keep his secret or save his brother. He tries to find a way to do both (as most people would) and fails.

But it isn’t until we’re about three-quarters of the way through the story that readers know fully what’s at stake and why. And readers have told me I kept them guessing.

Unspooling the secret

Layering your secrets allows you to tell the reader right away the one or two things she needs to know about your character to understand him. Additionally, your character will often not realize the importance of his core secret until its nearly exposed. This is when panic will set in and your character will make choices that threaten the HEA.

For instance, going back to Bran, if you asked him in Chapter One, he would say his core secret is that he’s a seer. Now in the time period when my story takes place, being a seer could get you killed or sanctified. So he keeps his visions to himself as much as he can. But his core secret is why he’s a wandering minstrel, why he has few friends, why his father sent him from home as a child. Almost every event in his life is somehow influenced by this secret.

How I unspooled Bran’s secret:

  • Chapter 1: Reveals Bran is a seer and that he’s seen a vision of his younger brother, Aedan, dead on a battlefield. The story opens as he’s trying desperately to get his brother to a cousin’s home where he believes Aedan will be safe. His goal is to save his brother’s life. (Note: I’ve obviously hinted at the nature of his core secret, but it becomes apparent in hindsight)
  • Chapter 8: Tells the heroine he’s a seer; she doesn’t believe him, at first, but subsequent events show he told the truth.
  • Chapter 16: Tells the heroine he’s pagan (just before they make love for the first time). This adds validity to why he keeps the secret. Obviously what he sees isn’t going to be sanctioned by the ruling religious authority.
  • Chapter 19: Admits that he’s seen a vision of Aedan’s death.
  • Chapter 23: Tells Aedan his core secret. He need only glance at a person and he sees their death. Sometimes it’s preventable, sometimes it isn’t, but it’s always there.
  • Chapter 24: Tells the heroine his core secret in a desperate bid to save Aedan’s life. By now, she has come to trust him and she believes him enough to tell him he’s going about it the wrong way (I love that about Liza. She’s never afraid to share an opinion).

Now many other things are going on in the story, but these are the steps in Bran’s character arc that chart his change.

Your character’s secret doesn’t need be this big to drive the story, but make it as big as you can within the confines of the story. The bigger the secret, the greater the risks and the more satisfying the outcome.

* * *

Thanks, Keena!!

So RU Students, what’s your protagonist’s dirty little secret? How did you unspool it through the story?

Join us again on Monday where C.J. Redwine critiques another reader’s query letter. Always lots to learn in our Query Writing 101 class!

Keena’s bio:

Keena Kincaid is a true history geek. The author of three historical romances, she can spend hours perusing the Oxford English Dictionary online or debating the merits of the 12th century renaissance.

She studied history, English and philosophy at Wittenberg University, concentrated on medieval history in graduate school at Miami University in Ohio, and keeps up with academic research and thought as a member of the Medieval Academy of America. What she likes best about writing medieval romances is the ability to creatively—but logically—fill in gaps in the historical record while telling a love story.

Kincaid’s novels are available from The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, Borders and other booksellers. You also can find her at, MySpace and Facebook (and she’s always looking for new friends).

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34 Responses to “The Dirty Little Secrets of Character Development”

  1. Hi Keena,

    Welcome to RU! I love how you went back through your story and pulled out each place you revealed Bran’s secret. It really give you a birds eye view of his inner conflict.

    I know you’re not a plotter, but did you decide ahead of time I need to bring up Bran’s secret 1/3, 2/3, 3/4 of the way through the book? Or could you feel where it needed to be inserted?

    Thanks, Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | April 30, 2010, 6:44 am
  2. Good morning, Tracey. Good question. When I wrote Anam Cara, I didn’t realize until I reached the end that I’d instinctively used Bran’s secret as turning points. To be honest, I didn’t realize I knew what Bran’s core secret was until I wrote the words coming out of his mouth. However, as I worked my way through the second and third drafts, I made sure I properly foreshadowed his secret and increased the tension leading up to each revelation.

    Posted by Keena Kincaid | April 30, 2010, 7:09 am
  3. Hi Keena. Thank you for being here. I had an “aha” moment while reading this post. My antagonist in my WIP has a secret that my protaganist is closing in on. I’m going to go back through and chart how the secret unravels to see if I can up the conflict.

    Thanks so much!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 30, 2010, 7:09 am
  4. Keena – Another thing you did skillfully in unraveling the secret was to have the key turning points between the hero and heroine. It wouldn’t have the same effect if the reader discovered the layers as he revealed them to some third party or within his own head. It’s the revealing of the secret to the heroine that makes the emotional stakes so compelling.

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | April 30, 2010, 8:01 am
    • That was instinctive, too, Blythe, but in the end the hero/heroine is the relationship that matters most, even though Bran spends much of the story trying to find a way to make Liza and Aedan separate but equal–and it just doesn’t work.

      Posted by Keena Kincaid | April 30, 2010, 10:02 am
  5. Morning Keena!

    I like that…”doesn’t reveal his secrets until he has no other choice.” It really ups the drama and I’m sure keeps the reader turning the pages as fast as they can!

    Great post – thanks!


    Posted by Carrie | April 30, 2010, 8:45 am
  6. Hi Keena!
    Thank you for this wonderful lesson. An editor recently told me I need to work on my characters moving my plot forward rather than external plot twists. Your post could not have come at a better time! My hero had powerful secrets but I neglected to drop hints about them leading up to the big reveal.
    Can you give me a heads up on how to find your next workshop?

    Posted by Wendy Marcus | April 30, 2010, 8:54 am
  7. Hi Keena, I agree with you about revealing the secrets slowly. It keeps the readers’ interest. In Rx for Trust, my heroine mentions her first secret in ch 2, reveals part of her big secret in ch 4 and explains it in ch 10. Hero’s secret is molding his character, making him inflexible, while her secret is her deep vulnerability. I read excerpts of Anam Cara and Ties That Bind. They are on my TBR list.

    Posted by Mona Risk | April 30, 2010, 9:15 am
  8. Hi Keena, This is an excellent post about secrets and revealing them layer by layer. I use secrets in writing my romantic suspenses and mysteries, and I wholeheartedly agree that the bigger the secret, the bigger the risk. I enjoy your blog posts very much and I also am a fan of your writing. I enjoy stepping into the medieval world as seen through your eyes.

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | April 30, 2010, 9:53 am
  9. Great post! Reading it, I realized that my hero, heroine and villain all have dirty little secrets that drive the book. It’s just something I never noticed before. In my next book, I’ll make sure to have secrets too.

    Posted by Edie | April 30, 2010, 10:34 am
    • Thanks, Edie. Just keep in mind the secret has to make sense for the characters and the plot. It’s got to matter in the time period your story is set in, and should be something that either the secret–or what the hero does to keep it–goes against the heroine’s ideals.

      Posted by Keena Kincaid | April 30, 2010, 1:49 pm
  10. Hi Keena,
    Great post. Revealing secrets is something I’ll definitely be giving more thought to. Your explanation was terrific.

    Posted by Diane Garner | April 30, 2010, 11:48 am
  11. Keena –

    Thanks for the wonderful lecture. Would you say that both the H/H must have a secret or that it’s enough for one to have a secret? And would you say the character with the secret is the true protagonist of the book?

    Thanks for being with RU today!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | April 30, 2010, 11:58 am
    • Hi, Kelsey. Tough question. Normally I would say yes, but sometimes the character without the big secret is the one who goes through the most changes and who is really driving the story. So it really depends on the nature of the secret.

      Secrets can also be kept to help someone else. These show character values and flesh out the character arc more than they drive the plot.

      For example, let’s say our heroine’s mother suffers from dementia. In her lucid moments, the mother begs the heroine not to let anyone know what’s wrong with her. The mother is proud, was once a force to be reckoned with and is now ashamed of her illness. So the daughter, to keep her mother’s secret, hangs dark curtains so the neighbors can’t see in, keeps her mother locked inside the house, so she won’t wander away, and is very evasive whenever anyone asks about the mother.

      Because of these actions, some people might suspect foul play, and the heroine lets them think ill of her to keep her mother’s secrets. In the beginning of the story, the reader will suspect the heroine of killing or mistreating her mother like the other character’s do.

      But the moment the reader learns the heroine’s secret, you have a completely different view of the heroine. Now this obviously isn’t the type of secret that would drive the plot to its conclusion (unless the heroine is willing to lie, cheat, steal and commit murder to keep her mother’s illness secret) but it does show character and could be part of how she meets the hero or…well, my brain is jumping with all the ways I could use that set-up and only half of them have her as the protagonist.

      That’s one thing I like about secrets. Almost everyone has one, but no two will play out the same.

      Posted by Keena Kincaid | April 30, 2010, 2:04 pm
  12. What a great topic!

    I needed this becasue sometimes it’s instictive and other times its missing in my writing. Pantser with a focus. Of course, now all I will be thinking about is my characters’ secrets.

    Posted by Pat Marinelli | April 30, 2010, 3:38 pm
  13. Hello, Keena–Both my protagonist and my secondary protagonist–is that the correct term–have secrets. I think that makes an even better plot if everyone does. I don’t write mystery or suspense, but there can be plenty of that in a simple love story by adding other characters. However, I have written more than one ms in which the protagonist really didn’t have a secret, but she had something she really, really wanted and the antogonist tried to prevent her from getting it. Celia

    Posted by Celia Yeary | April 30, 2010, 3:39 pm
    • Celia,
      I don’t think a good secret is relegated to just mystery or suspense. Sometimes the secret just needs to be something that makes the heroine or hero vulnerable, and wanting to protect her/his heart, she/he is reluctant to reveal it. I think that’s the perfect secret for a romance.

      Posted by Keena Kincaid | April 30, 2010, 10:28 pm
  14. Thanks, Keena! We really enjoyed having you as a visiting professor.

    Good luck on your upcoming workshops!


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | April 30, 2010, 7:30 pm
    • Hi Keena,

      Where you able to be quite so ‘instinctive’ while writing your initial books? I hope so, and I wonder. In the novels I am writing the instinctive approach feels most kindred but I often wonder if I need a more comprehensive plot/structure/labyrinth to write into?

      .” I’ve also found that by exposing the layers of smaller lies and the habits my characters develop to keep that secret, I can still give readers plot twists that take the story in an unexpected direction without them throwing the book against the wall.”

      Could you say a bit more about what you wrote, above?

      Thank you for the fecund secrets you offer us all on the eve of Beltane.

      Blessed be,

      Laurel aka Drea

      Posted by Drea | April 30, 2010, 10:09 pm
      • Drea,
        For me, the first draft is instinctive. The second draft is when I dig into plot and make sure that all the various story threads work together. I do develop a comprehensive structure and time line at this stage and make sure every detail has a place and a function.

        That said, everyone’s writing process is different, and I don’t think anyone else can really understand why we do it the way we do. But if you think you need a more comprehensive structure, you probably do. Try to plot out a third of your book and see what happens.

        As for exposing the smaller lies before revealing the big one, the way I do it mainly through foreshadowing. I establish two things very early in Anam Cara. 1.) Bran saw Aedan’s death and is trying to save his brother’s life; and 2.) his first instinct is to lie.

        The first point is established in the first chapter. So readers know he’s a seer, and I’ve hinted at his core secret, but I don’t reveal it. However, because of these hints, they aren’t surprised when the core secret is revealed–and that takes the story in a different direction. The urgency and desperation he feels makes sense, as does the way he lives his life and why he finds it so hard to really connect with the heroine (or his brother)

        The second point happens probably before Chapter 5 (I’d have to go back and check) and it’s a simple little scene in which Bran diffuses the tension in a room before a fight becomes disaster. But he lies to do it, and this not only irritates the heroine but also establishes Bran’s default mechanism, which should put much of what’s he’s told the heroine, so far, in doubt. It (hopefully) builds tension as the reader waits to find out what the truth is. And that uncertainty gives me room to twist the plot without breaking it.

        Does that answer your question?

        Posted by Keena Kincaid | April 30, 2010, 10:42 pm
        • Hi Keena,

          Your answer does help, thank you.

          My instinct is to let the first draft be what it is and tolerate a fair amount of wondrous thrilling chaos, without flinching. (friendly grin).

          I wonder what template nourishes your writing.



          Posted by Drea | May 1, 2010, 12:33 am
  15. Keena, Thanks for the mini lesson on Dirty Little Secrets. I find the 3 points helpful and especially liked the chapter story structure of how you layered the secrets.

    Posted by Julie Robinson | April 30, 2010, 10:07 pm
  16. Great post Keena! You really know your stuff. I’m printing it out for future reference!
    Casey Crow

    Posted by Casey Crow | May 3, 2010, 12:12 pm

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