Well-Rounded Characters – Unlocking Deep, Dark Secrets

Today is the fourth and final lesson in this month’s story clinic on character development. I hope you’ve enjoyed the lessons. I also hope you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your new lead character.

Links to the previous lessons are below.

But there is a lot more to the process than those three steps. Basically, you should keep digging into your character’s psyche until you know them inside and out.

3 Tips for Uncovering Those Deep, Dark Secrets

unlocking-your-characters-deep-dark-secretsThe secrets your character keeps will be what influences his story the most. They may not be at the crux of the story’s conflict, but they will affect the way the character responds. For most of the story, they will hinder the character or cause harm to him or those around him. They are the demons he’ll have to face before he can solve the real problem.

There are many ways to uncover these secrets. Here is one tool and a couple of methods that have helped me through this process.

Tool: Character Interview
Go back to the character interview. The section pertaining to core principles and attitudes is where you’ll be most likely to find the deep, dark secrets in your lead character’s life.

The questions you want answers for now are existential questions. Meaning-of-life questions.

  1. What is this character’s view of the world?
  2. If your character had one day to live, how would they spend that day?
  3. Is this character able to trust others easily?
  4. Does this character hold things in?
  5. What is this character’s greatest fear?
  6. What is this character’s greatest hope?
  7. What is the worst thing that could happen to this character?
  8. What is the best thing that could happen to this character?
  9. What single event could throw this character’s life into complete turmoil?
  10. How does this character react in a crisis?
  11. Has this character ever had a brush with death?

The answers to these and other questions will go a long way toward identifying your character’s deepest secrets. The sorts of things that even family members may not know.

secretMethod: What Lie Does Your Lead Believe to Be True?
Almost everybody believes something about themselves that isn’t true. Experience has taught them a lie. They’ve been told a lie by someone else—possibly someone they love—and they’ve come to believe it. Quite often, the lie has its foundation in childhood, but the person is able to reason well-enough to recognize the lie.

Your lead character should also believe something about him- or herself that isn’t true.

Before you panic, though, let me tell you there are eight common categories from which most of these lies arise. They are

  1. I’m a disappointment
  2. I’m not good enough – inadequate
  3. I’m not good enough – defective
  4. I’m too much to handle and will be rejected
  5. It’s all my fault
  6. I’m helpless or powerless
  7. I’m unwanted/unloved
  8. I’m bad

These are very basic. Whatever your lead character believes to be true will affect everything he or she does—whether it’s true or not. How the character is affected will differ from character to character. For example, if your lead believes he’s not good enough, he may attempt to disprove the lie by becoming an over-achiever or he may resign himself to the lie and never do anything notable.

A person who believes they’re powerless may attempt to disprove that belief by taking charge of everything or they may let themselves become a perpetual victim. How your character reacts is part of his or her character and that’s why I put this in the Deep, Dark Secrets category.

There are three things to consider when thinking about the character’s big lie.

Where did the lie come from? Did something happen to the character that convinced him of the lie? For example, a young child who survived a car accident that killed both parents might believe she wasn’t good enough to save her parents or that she was to blame for their deaths even though there was nothing she could have done.

How does the character respond to the lie? Does she believe it’s true, but attempt to disprove it or does she give in to it?

What needs to happen to help the character see the lie for what it is? Chances are, this event will end up playing a vital role in your story, so take time to think it through. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer right away. The story may have to develop before the answer becomes clear, but be aware that you will need an answer. Sooner or later.

Method: Back Story
Also known as character history.

The more you know about your character’s history, the better understanding you have about why your character is the way he or she is in the story.

There are lots of opinions about how important this is and how extensive it needs to be. My personal opinion is that you can’t know too much about how your character was raised, where he went to school, or his work history.

As with all the other parts of the character development process, this will take shape over time. Let it. Review it periodically so it’s up-to-date as you write your story.

However, the more developed it is when you begin writing, the better tool it is for finding interesting and unexpected subplots if you find yourself in need of one.


Character development doesn’t really end until your story is finished and published. If you happen to be working on a series, character development continues through each book in the series.

The tips I’ve shared with you throughout this month’s lessons are just the beginning. I hope they’re helpful, but I also hope they’re just the jumping off point for you as you develop your lead character.

Your Assignment

What is your lead character’s Big Lie? What does he believe to be true? How does he respond to it? Here are three things to consider when thinking about the character’s Big Lie:

  • Where did the lie come from?
  • How does the character respond to the lie?
  • What will it take to make the character realize the lie is a lie?

Review the questions in the Secrets section of the character interview. How do these answers change previous answers?

Spend time working out your character’s back story. Use the interview questions as a starting point.

Bonus Lesson

If you enjoyed this story clinic, subscribe to Indie Plot Twist before September 30, 2015. Opt in for the newsletter and get a bonus lesson on character journaling in the October 2015 IPT Newsletter.

Other Resources

Well Rounded Character Worksheet Part 4 Deep Dark Secrets

Characters That Live and Breathe

How to Write Memorable Characters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *