Monday Motivation: How to access the secret life of characters

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

If I were to give you a writing exercise challenging you to describe yourself, how would you go about it? What sort of information would you give? Well, of course I have no idea whatsoever what you’d say specifically, because “you” refers to many hundreds or thousands of readers of this blog. But I do know what general categories of information you’re likely to draw on.

You’ll give a thumbnail sketch of yourself in the context of your family: “I am the third of three sisters…” You’ll likely tell us when and where you were born, where you grew up, what schools and universities you attended, and some of the highlights of your career. You might mention the fact that you were named Marketer of the Year in 2009, or that a short story you submitted to the Southern African Short Story Competition in 2014 won third prize.

In other words, part of the summary of your life would consist of a brief curriculum vitae, the accessible data relating to your “public” life.

Then, if you were intent on giving a full picture of yourself, you’d hazard a psychological self-portrait. Here you might say things like, “I’m outgoing and confident, although I probably underestimate the difficulty of the challenges I face.” Or, if you’re exceptionally candid: “I have a bad self-image, and this saps me of confidence. I guess you could say that most people would consider me a loser…”

And there, probably, you’d end your profile. The public life – and the private life. A full portrait of you as a person in the world.

The fact is, though, that there’s a third dimension that is very seldom mentioned, but that constitutes a singularly important – in many cases, the most important – aspect of your character.

And that is, your secret life.

Well, naturally, you’d never give details of your secret life to an inquisitor. The secret life of men and women is intertwined with feelings of shame, inadequacy and guilt. This is the sort of material that your psychotherapist is most interested in. These are the secrets that you’re likely only to confess in that theoretical encounter with St Peter at the pearly gates. Indeed, they might be the secrets whose existence causes him to shake his head and deny you entry.

But as writers we’re not talking about your secret life. We’re more concerned with the secret lives of your characters.

So what does their secret life consist of? I’m reading a book at the moment called My Lovely Wife, in which the narrator is a serial killer. That’s a pretty powerful secret to have, and, of course, the entire story pivots around it and the possibility of its entering into the public sphere.

But the secret doesn’t need to be as melodramatic as that. It could consist simply of the secret shame your character carries with him for not having objected when a policeman treated a suspect with criminal brutality in his presence.  Or when your character pocketed a wallet and removed the banknotes in it, instead of handing it in to the authorities. Or for one or other infidelity. Or for…

There are an infinite number of offences that fall short of criminal behavior that a character might prefer to remain undiscovered.

As a writer, you’re able to access all these secrets – even those that your character might have concealed so well that he himself has forgotten them. And you’re able to use these secrets for dramatic effect – or indeed, to drive your narrative.

So when next you build a character, consider her public life and her private life – but give as much thought to the third dimension of her being: her secret life.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Writing isn’t for sissies – get used to it

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