character hiding header

7 Things Your Character Is Hiding

7 things your character could be hidingBeing able to write realistic, consistent, multi-dimensional characters is vital to gaining reader interest. Doing so first requires we know a lot about who our characters are—you know, the obvious stuff: positive and negative traits, behavioral habits, desires, goals, and the like. But it’s not always the obvious parts of characterization that create the most intrigue. What about the things your character is hiding?

Everyone hides. We hide the goals we know are wrong for us, opinions that may turn others against us, or feelings and desires that make us feel vulnerable—basically anything with the potential for rejection or shame.

The same should be true for our characters. When characters are cagey out of a need to protect themselves from emotional harm, readers understand that. It makes the characters more authentic and can pique your readers’ interest as they try to figure out the secret or worry over what will happen when it comes to light.

7 Different Things Your Character Is Hiding

To add this layer of depth to your characters, you first need to know what’s taboo in their minds—not only what they’re hiding, but why. Here are some common things your character may feel compelled to conceal from others.

1. Desires

Desires are an important part of who your characters are. These desires drive their actions and decisions in the story. While these wants are often transparent, there are situations in which the character may not feel comfortable sharing them.

Maybe she’s secretly pining for her sister’s ex, or she longs for a career forbidden by her parents, or she wants to fight her boss’s unethical behavior but is afraid of losing her job.

Forbidden or dangerous desires can add an element of risk, upping the stakes for the character and making things more interesting for readers.

2. Fears

Everyone has fears. Many of those fears are perfectly acceptable, which makes it safe for us to share them. It’s the ones that make us feel weak or lessen us in the eyes of others that we keep in the dark.

Think about uncommon fears, such as being afraid of a certain people group, physical intimacy, or of leaving one’s house.

Unusual fears like these should always come from somewhere—maybe from a wounding event or negative past influencers. Make sure there’s a good reason for whatever your character is afraid of.

3. Negative Past Events

Speaking of wounding events, we each have defining moments from the past that we’re reluctant to share with others or even acknowledge ourselves.

What’s something that could have happened to your characters that they’ll go to great lengths to keep hidden? What failures or humiliating moments might they alter in their own memories to keep from facing them?

Wounds are formative on many levels, so it’s important to figure out what those are and how they may impact the character.

4. Flaws and Insecurities

Being flawed is part of the human experience. There are things about ourselves we don’t want to examine too closely and which we definitely don’t want others to know about.

For characters, these flaws often manifest as insecurities or negative traits (such as being weak-willed, unintelligent, or vain). Whether these weaknesses are real or only perceived, characters will try to downplay them.

But part of their journey to fulfillment includes facing the truth and acknowledging the part their flaws play in holding them back. To write their complete journeys, your need to know what weaknesses they’re keeping under wraps.

5. Unhealthy Behaviors

Sometimes characters exhibit behaviors or habits they know aren’t good for them. Maybe these behaviors stem from a wounding event or an unhealthy desire. Maybe they really want to change, but they don’t know how.

Whether it’s a promiscuous lifestyle, a gambling addiction, or a compulsion to self-harm, they’ll expend a lot of energy to keep these behaviors hidden.

Revealing these behaviors to readers, while hiding them from other characters, is a great way to remain true to the human experience while also building reader interest.

6. Uncomfortable Emotions

The Emotion Thesaurus Cover SMALL WEBWhile it’s healthy to embrace and express a range of emotions, characters are not always comfortable with all the feelings. This may occur with emotions that are tied to a negative event from the past. It may be an emotion that makes the character feel vulnerable or is culturally unacceptable.

The character will want to mask any uncomfortable emotions, often disguising them as something else: embarrassment is replaced with self-deprecation, or fear manifests as anger. This duality of emotion is important because it humanizes characters for readers and adds a layer of authenticity that might otherwise be missing.

7. Opinions and Ideas

Everyone wants to be liked. To gain the respect of others, we often go so far as to sacrifice honesty.

If an opinion isn’t popular, your characters may keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas others won’t appreciate, they won’t share them—or they’ll get the ideas  out there in a way that allows them to avoid taking ownership.

Peer acceptance is important to everyone; that need, and the secrets that accompany it, is something that every reader will be able to relate to.

***

Deception—whether deliberate or subconscious—is part of the human experience. When your characters hide things from others, they become deeper and more layered and avoid turning into clichés. They’ll come across as more authentic to readers, who will be able to relate to them. It also can build empathy as readers see the character headed the wrong direction. A lot of good can result from taking the time to discover what your characters are hiding. So put on your Nosy Pants and get to work!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you think of some things your character is hiding? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.

Comments

  1. Robert Billing says:

    Very interesting article, thanks.

    For me the things you mention are not separate. My long-term protagonist really wants to make the world better, but on the way she’s gone from being an optimistic teenager who doesn’t think she can get hurt to a young woman who is very aware of danger. This has happened because she made one mistake too many that ended in the death of someone she cared about. Now she is haunted by this, and it is making her cold and remote.

    ‘So–What about the ring?’
    ‘Arcturian tradition. One black band means I’m widowed and looking for a new partner, two I might be interested if the right person comes along.’
    ‘But that’s got three.’
    ‘I don’t think I have to tell you, do I?’
    ‘Three bands. Does it mean you’re telling me to keep my distance?’

    • beccapuglisi says:

      Yes, secrets should always tie into the bigger picture. When they’re picked randomly or out of interest, they become gimmicky and definitely don’t create the authentic feel we’re all looking for :).

  2. This is an interesting post that opens up all sorts of possibilities. My character (13yr-old boy) is hiding from his parents – and the reader for most of the book – the fact that another boy stole and destroyed his laptop. The parents, and the reader, think he lost it, because he is too afraid of the bully to tell the truth.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      This brings up an interesting point—that while we think of “Deception” in negative terms, we (and our characters) are usually doing it to protect ourselves. In your character’s case, it’s not because he’s trying to deceive anyone; it’s because he’s afraid. This is so often the motivation for why our characters hide things. Asking “what is my character afraid of” will often reveal the thing they’re hiding.

  3. This post on secrets is an excellent way to build characters- but what I find hard is letting the reader in on secondary character’s secrets while writing in first person. In my WIP, a pair of secondary characters are having marriage problems because each thinks their spouse blames them for the death of their son. My problem is getting them to interact at all in front of my MC, since the wife can hardly stand to be in the same room with him. (The son was killed by goblin creatures… which is what my main character is.)

    • Good point, Grace — writing in 1st person, how to reveal secondary character secrets? I await an answer from la maestra, Ms. Weiland.

    • Grace Marie, perhaps they could find some piece of evidence of the secret and investigate it further? Spying on them or something?

      • I do have a lovely overheard conversation, which helps. I am telling myself that a lot of the subtext may have to be added in editing, though. (I didn’t realize until I was re-reading my WIP, that I hadn’t even hinted at a whole lot of things that were very clear in MY mind…) I do really love this post. I feel like my main character hits pretty much all these points, and he’s very well rounded -it’s just my poor secondary characters are not coming out quite so clearly. They have secrets too, and I need to make sure my audience knows it.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      Hi, Grace. You bring up a great point. So much about our secondary characters are hard to get across when writing in the first person point of view. But this is where those “clues to deception” come in. Your viewpoint character won’t identify right away what the secret is; the first step is for them to notice that something is been hidden. Show them being cagey in dialogue, with their body language, through inconsistencies in what they’ve said, etc. Over time, the viewpoint character can put the pieces together for the reader to figure out the mystery. But in the meantime, you’ve likely achieved reader intrigue by sharing the clues that hint at deception. We have a helpful tip sheet at One Stop for Writers on Deception in Dialogue that may come in handy with this (https://onestopforwriters.com/image_tips).

  4. My character, as a teenager, has found a letter that seems to indicate his pastor (whom he loves like a replacement father) knows more about the mysterious death of his real father when he was 6, and may be guilty. He is torn between wanting to expose the killer and not losing this second father figure. So he says nothing, which creates a huge tension – that he tries to hide too.

  5. Mary George says:

    Thank you, Becca! Novel Psychology 101. Without this, I find I’ve created characters that don’t constitute real people, leaving the reader with a string of unresolved gut feelings. And, done too much and carelessly, which I always do in the first drafts, I step dangerously close to melodrama and have to catch myself, unless they sound like scenes better suited to the Hallmark Channel. Yup. Another reason to hit the ol’ delete button.

    However – and this is what is great about over-writing in melodrama mode: it actually lets me zero in on the psychology. The feelings. That character that had a hissy fit, argued like a jerk, punched someone in the face, sulked off like a loser or ran away tired. I’m okay writing in over-dramatized mode now because it lets me shape the characters’ profiles. And I know, when I get to revision time, that I can tone it down – knowing that the character was feeling angry, defensive, violent, demoralized and/or emotionally exhausted. Once fine-tuned with less melodrama, a lot of times I end up giving the reader the sense of the psychology, without over-explaining it. Sometimes these scenes allude to the unknown, like you said, what my characters don’t want others to know, but their actions and words are keeping something secret – the harder, deeper feelings that we all struggle with.

    So, my antag never tells the love of his life his darkest secret. It’s only in the middle of the story it is revealed. Before and after this, only his mother and father know, and a few others not directly in his world. It shapes his convictions, his life choices, his desire to compensate with social academic status, all of which comprise the narrative and dialogue throughout his profile shaping. Ultimately, the protag is shown his scar – he doesn’t do it himself, reiterating: shame. That’s mine in a nutshell.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      Great point. There’s always a reason why a character is keeping a secret. Understanding the psychology behind that WHY is super important for knowing what is driving him and how to write his deception.

  6. Fantastic article, Becca!

    My SFF WIP is full of these, because the big thing about George RR Martin’s writing that’s rubbed off on me is the idea of “morally grey” characters. It’s so much better that way.

    While, they’re alone, the MC is told a few rather interesting words by a character thought to be villainous, so he’s the only one that ever hears it.

    Also, the secondary protagonist has a POV chapter where he opens up on some deeper feelings about himself once away from the other central cast. Then once met up again, he goes right back to hiding them.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      When it comes to the things characters hide, feelings are often the ones people don’t think about. But this is something that we do all the time in real life. We hide the feelings that make us feel vulnerable or weak. When we can bring that out for our characters, they become a little more authentic and true to life.

  7. This was a really good post. I looked at all the seven things and ticked off which ones are obvious (and not so obvious) with characters in my current trilogy. When I did an in depth character study of each of my main characters all those things were represented making them very complex and believable characters. Thank you for confirming my process!

  8. Great list, to help us build well-rounded, three dimensional characters who we can empathize. Sometimes I wonder how much of me or people I know should I imbue my characters.
    You show us the things we hide from others make for better literature.
    Great post, Becca!

  9. Thank you for another great article. Pithy and concise but full of essential tips. Brilliant again.

  10. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Becca!

  11. Donna Terrell says:

    Thank you so much for this, and the emotion thesaurus has been an amazing resource for me. I may have to upgrade and get the second edition. It was the resource I didn’t know I needed when I started writing.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      I’m so glad you found it useful! We hear that quite a bit about the original, which is why we decided to expand it into a second edition. There are 55 more emotions covered than there were in the first version, as well as additional instruction front matter. So that may help you decide if you’d like to get the new edition :).

  12. I’m editing my novel and I am missing a flaw for my main character. I thought about using the flaw based on the Enneagram, but I’m still afraid my MC become ‘unlikeable’.
    This topic came at a perfect moment! Thank you!

  13. Wonderful post, Becca! This helps me to clarify my mc’s motivations and choices. He is a ghost who’s fear of crossing over has left him earthbound. He’s fine with this, until he meets someone (living) who can see & communicate with him, and who makes him question why he is still here. He doesn’t want to figure it out, he just wants to continue as he is, not harming anyone, but now his past is haunting him and he must confront it & face his deeper truth & pain in order to be free of it. But since this will culminate in crossing over, he is reluctant to do this. Thank you! I have just figured out what my story is really about!!

  14. Wow, thanks, Becca, this is a serious study… and makes me wonder if I shouldn’t spend a month sorting all this out before writing. I have a character who is unconsciously haunted by his failure as a father — his teenage daughter ran away. So it’s failure that gnaws at him. Of course he’s going to hide from that.

    In addition, I’m of the opinion that humans are hiding from the very fact of their dubious existence. Down deep, isn’t everyone anxious about their non-existence? Our sense of self is an illusion. We’re all anxious, all the time. If that’s the human condition, no wonder we’re addicted to drama and stories. They all hint at our deluded existence. For this reason, I can’t think of anything better to do with a life than to be a writer. We’re heroes to even delve into this stuff. Onward!

    • beccapuglisi says:

      Delving into our characters really is a study in psychology. With them so often being mirrors of ourselves or others, it’s no surprise that they end up following the same “rules.”

  15. Very helpful, thank you!

  16. Reading the comments and the replies to the comments shows just what a complex, versatile and powerful techniques this is for deepening characters and plot, as well as the reader’s enjoyment.

  17. Marilyn Carvin says:

    Thank you. Had a slight problem since my MC is deeply religious and striving hard to be a saint. It’s been a challenge to give him flaws, hidden desires and unhealthy behaviors. There are some, but sitting down and actually defining them has been a great exercise, and I can see how I can expand and magnify those I already had hinted at. Writing coaches stress cause and effect in the action. This will help me find more ways he can cause his own difficulties. Great article.

    • beccapuglisi says:

      Good for you, for sticking to your guns and making sure the flaws are there. They’re so important for creating well-rounded characters that readers can relate to.

  18. angelaackerman1 says:

    I love seeing all of these ideas brought together–it stirs up ideas on some great combos I can use. Nicely done there, Puglisi 🙂

  19. My character StarGirl often hides the fact that she’s StarGirl from allies, and is probably hiding it from her mom who she thinks is BeamGirl, and is going through the who not being confident in who she is thing and not trusting herself.

  20. Elixa A. Parr says:

    My arsonist is afraid of fire but forces himself to face it head on (not literally) so no one knows. He was abused with fire when he was younger.

  21. An interesting post. Some of my characters have secrets, but not all. I should work on those who haven’t.

  22. Love this article. I drafted my first romance novel for NaNoWriMo this year. Going down your points to make my protag more realistic, I decided to do the following based on your 7th point – Opinions and Ideas: Ginny married Cal (from the second richest family in town) because, aside from the rest of her family, her Dad approved of him. She was hesitant because she liked a less financially desirable guy (from her mother’s perspective) better, plus all of Cal’s brothers have had numerous kids, who her husband pays little attention to, and she is undecided on if she wants any at all, based on the dynamics of her home life and that of her friends (with the exception of one). She hasn’t expressed her ambivalence about having children to anyone. Not enjoying sex due to Cal’s lack of courtesy and the fear of getting pregnant was a source of conflict in their relationship, as was no child resulting after a year and a half. I apologize for the brain dump but your blog resulted in this and I am very happy about it. Have a number of your books and pre-ordered the new one a month or so ago. Please keep them coming.

  23. Thank you, Becca! I am giving my protagonist alopecia, so some of her hair falls out. Since she is a freshman in college, she feels self-conscious about this. Her “solution” is to run everywhere for half the novel because she wants to hide from others. Of course, many do see what is happening on her head. This is part of the set of complications I am giving her to address.

  24. Creig Sigurdson says:

    Thank you, Becca. You gave me ideas I’m itching to explore with my protagonist Sue Brightman, as I want to discover how she has been emotionally twisted by my antagonist through her sick mother from an early age. Undermining her belief that she is not worthy of love. Which is the source of her strength and power, her eldritch enemy knows better than she does. As he can’t act directly against her, he must influence “agents” to cripple her abilities. While she is coming aware of the reality of the world, he has sought to stop or subvert her, with elements of luck in the outcome.
    Displaying her weaknesses while she discovered her true propose as she journey’s away from the fight, is the fun part of learning how to tell her story.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.