Posted by: nancycurteman | September 25, 2013

Secret Pasts Make Sympathetic Story Characters

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GlobalSecrets-3People have secrets in their past that they would prefer not to reveal to everyone. This is part of being human. This is part of living. Your story characters will be more human if you give them some secrets. Readers will identify with them and feel empathy toward them. Secret pasts make sympathetic story characters. Here’s how to make secrets work in your novel.

• Give characters emotional needs, wounds and skeletons that motivate their behaviors.

• Give them previous failures and sources of disappointment that lead them to become weary or fearful of certain things.

• Make your character’s past haunt him by putting your him in situations where the same failure could become a reality again.

• Have your protagonist face something that forces him to address an issue he’s been avoiding.

• Gradually reveal details or expose and secrets. Stories are constructed around a series of surprises and twists. The unexpected unsettles readers. Insert mini-shocks throughout the story.

• Withhold information about protagonists past issues from the reader until the last moment

Consider these scenarios of how secret pasts might look in your novel.

• Her ex-husband is in prison for murder. If it comes to light, what will it do to the image as a socialite she’s worked so hard to build?

• He had a personal relationship with the murder victim years ago. Can he be objective in his investigation?

• He was abused as a child. Will he rerun his terror now that he’s a father.

• He was an alcoholic or drug addict. Will he be able to do the part of his job that requires entertaining clients.

• Someone died because his fear of heights kept him from saving him. Now he’s forced to climb the tower to get the kid. Will he be able to do it?

More Tips:

Perfect Characters are Paper Characters
Developing Characters is No Mystery
How to Create Sympathetic Mystery Novel Characters


  1. Great tips, NC! There is nothing I like better than to be surprised (in a believable way) when being told a story.

    That’s the foundation of humor too . . . the surprise ending or twist.


    • Surprise is one of the basic tenets of a mystery story.


  2. Great article, Nancy. We all have secrets that are difficult to share, & so its easy to be drawn into stories that are relatable.


    • I agree. If we can see our own emotions and feelings in a story, we are much more likely to relate to it.


  3. I agree with above replies but find it difficult to come up with secrets that fit my stories in ways that are relevant. That is which of the 50 weaknesses or secrets I can think of to use, which is optimal for my story? I guess that says writing can be hard work, one more thing to do (and do well). To me it says some of my “writing” sessions, shouldn’t be writing at all but digging into psychology of real people I know or in the news (or in other fiction) and then–and this is the hard part–weave it (weakness or secret) into the plot in a tangled web that makes it more interesting and the characters more relatable. It’s a complex enough task that it makes me wonder if it’s worth it, but I’ve heard similar advice before so I better try it.


    • Writing is hard work, but I love it. I especially love seeing positive outcomes of a struggle with a difficult scene. Oh, do not gig up!


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