What Are Your Characters Hiding?


You’ve got a secret. Don’t you?

If you’re like most of us, you have a secret you don’t want anyone to know. Maybe you’re wearing mismatched socks, maybe you’re the lunchbox thief at work, or maybe you’re a hundred rats in a trench coat posing as a Brazilian spy. The point is: most of us know what it means to worry someone will find out our secret, leaving us vulnerable to rejection and shame.

That vulnerability is one of the most potent ways to increase the relatability of your characters. It adds psychological layers and twists the audience into knots as they worry the secret will get out. In short, it makes for good storytelling.

So, let’s take a look at some things your characters might be hiding.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019) Photo courtesy: HBO

No 1. — Forbidden desires

There are actually very good genetic reasons for not procreating with your twin, but that kind of logic-talk doesn’t matter in Game of Thrones. The pilot episode ends with Cersei and Jamie attempting to kill Bran when the boy accidentally discovers them getting frisky. Their affair sets off a series of events that eventually leads to war and more murder and some very weird magic and what we all hope is spectacular finale. This show offers secrets a’ plenty, but Jamie and Cersei’s shocking forbidden desire is a big one, and it makes for juicy television.

Russian Doll (2019) Photo courtesy: Netflix

No. 2. — Secrets we keep from ourselves

There’s more than one kind of secret in this world. Sometimes, it’s a dark fear hidden in the back of our minds that poisons everything we do and say. This is certainly true of Nadia in Russian Doll, who struggles through a surprising number of deaths on her quest to figure out why this is happening to her. Even as the audience begins to understand the source of her troubles, through her memories and her interactions with friends, Nadia lags behind us, unable to grasp the meaning of it, until the final moment of revelation when she confronts her inner demons and accepts what is (and isn’t) her fault.

Ladybird (2017) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 3. — Bald-faced lies

Ladybird begins and ends with a conversation about college. Ladybird hates Sacramento and desperately wants to move to New York, so she applies to colleges on the east coast, and she lies to her mother about it, because she knows her mother won’t approve. Ladybird even conscripts her fragile father to help her lie, which makes the audience nervous about what will happen to this family when this secret explodes. The results are devastating for every character in the movie, making this one of the more poignant movies in the last ten years.

The Favourite (2018) Photo courtesy: Fox Searchlight Films

No. 4. — Fears and insecurities

The Favourite shows us a palace rife with lies, secrets, treachery, and a weird affinity for duck racing. Everyone loves a wicked romp, but that’s not the true emotional center of this story. Queen Anne starts out convinced of Lady Sarah’s affections, but when Abigail arrives, Queen Anne starts to question their relationship. Which one really loves her? Everything that happens in the film is related to Queen Anne’s buried fears and insecurities, blinding her to the dangers around her. Nothing less than the fate of England is at stake. The secrets Queen Anne keeps from herself are far more worrying than the constant debauchery committed in the palace.

Secrets, both deliberate and subconscious, make for complicated, fascinating characters. When you give your characters a reason to hide something, you give your audience a reason to watch.

What are your favorite movies and television shows that feature secrets? Sound off in the comments.


Jennie Evenson is the author of "Shakespeare for Screenwriters" (Michael Wiese, 2013) as well as short fiction, essays, and a children's fantasy novel "Dalya & the Magic Ink Bottle" (Capstone, 2020). As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

7 Replies to "What Are Your Characters Hiding?"

  • comment-avatar
    Les Bowser September 9, 2019 (3:22 pm)

    But what if my lead character is up-front and honest to a fault? He knows what he wants but he’s not hiding anything, not from his companions, the audience, or himself — a Forrest Gump sort of guy. His antagonists all have hidden motives, so he has to be characteristically opposed to all of them. I can’t re-invent somebody just to satisfy a semiotic theory of film. Can I?

    • comment-avatar
      Paul Plotsker September 9, 2019 (4:07 pm)

      My lead is the same. I don’t see how I could reinvent him without losing his authentic voice. I suppose the supporting characters will have to bear the secrets.

  • comment-avatar
    Alexa Siegrist September 9, 2019 (3:54 pm)

    thank you for the great ideas! As a new writer… I’m still struggling with finding resources that will help me with character development. As someone who has worked in the industry and probably has her finger on the pulse could you point me to anything that you think would help me craft a more authentic character/storyline – books/ sites etc ty!

  • comment-avatar
    Opie September 9, 2019 (4:07 pm)

    There are no rules. But I bet you can still find a secret he’s hiding from himself. Try it both ways and see what conflict is more fun to write.

  • comment-avatar
    Robbert September 9, 2019 (6:35 pm)

    Lead characters have secrets also. The fear of snakes. Fear of failing. Fear of commitment etc.,

  • comment-avatar
    Laura September 9, 2019 (7:39 pm)

    The lies and hidden secrets can come from anywhere, the point is also in creating vulnerability for your lead, to make him interesting and pull us in to care about him. Being up-front to a fault would provide vulnerability for him, because the audience would know he’s probably going to be hurt. The ‘lie’ is that he believes his own truth but doesn’t recognize the world around him (?)… he is being lied to, sort of like in the “Favourite”. …

  • comment-avatar
    Janet Wells September 10, 2019 (4:20 am)

    Then your main character is a catalyst for change in all the other characters, and that’s fine so long as the other characters ARE changed by your character. Will your main character have any growth/change? Make sure you map that out. Forrest Gump didn’t change internally and that worked, but that was the exception, not the rule (and I wouldn’t put a fake secret just to follow the advice of this article), although I do think this article is very helpful .

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