Readers want to get to know your characters in an organic and natural way, which means learning slowly about who your characters are by the way they handle challenging situations. What readers don’t want is the author telling them straightway all the secrets of a character, what a character is feeling at a given moment and why.
Most people enjoy being challenged. They want to read between the lines and work hard to uncover hidden information.
Backstories need to be built in carefully. A reader shouldn’t be overwhelmed by large chunks of information and revelations should be tied into some sort of action in a scene.
As a whole, backstories are important, because the past has shaped your characters and impacts upon their actions and behaviors. Yet, it is the pieces of information that your characters seek to hide, which are the most interesting ones.
It is therefore crucial to decide from the start, which of your characters has secrets and how significant these secrets are. The bigger the secret the later should it be revealed in the story.
In order to illustrate my point I have picked ‘The Selection’ by Kiera Cass. It is the second
book in The Elite series.
Warning spoiler alerts below
‘The Selection’ is narrated from America Singer’s point of view. It follows her journey at the palace, where she competes with six eligible women to become the wife of prince Maxon. Unsure, whether she can trust Maxon, America is torn between him and her former love Aspen, who happens to be a guard at the palace.
While the book focuses mostly on America’s hardships, she does have a keen eye for detail and notices that the prince seems to be always put together, ready to run at the slightest sign of danger and that he overreacts when she shoves him and calls him a child. As a reader it is easy to explain away this behavior or dismiss it with Maxon being the prince. Some may think he is only acting appropriate for such a role of leadership.
However in the end of ‘The Selection’ it is revealed that the king, who has so far been presented as authoritative but not a heartless figure, takes his anger regularly out on his son, beating him, until Maxon’s back is bloody. It is a secret that no one knows about and America only finds out when the prince requires her help.
This secret injects immediately zest into book two and the upcoming books in the series. While, so far the reader and America had the suspicion that the king needs to be though when squashing rebellions, suddenly the perception of him shifts. He is transformed from a ruler, who is doing his job, to a monster that is willing to hurt his child to make himself feel better.
The king’s true nature will not just impact Maxon, but also America as well as the rest of the country that is ruled by this tyrant.
Maxon’s secret is the main surprise of book two. It changes everything for America – the way she views the king and how she plans to behave in the future.
The other big secret of the series is that America still cares for Aspen, her Ex and guard at the palace, which could cost both his and her life. Since the books are narrated by America, the reader is aware of this secret. Maxon, his family and the other contestants however have no clue about it. The severity of this secret and its consequences, should anyone find out, inject a lot of tension into the series.
A story can have few or multiple secrets. The fewer there are the more weight each must carry. It is best when a secret impacts all the main characters in your novel.
Secrets should be foreshadowed and appear plausible, yet it is crucial not to reveal them too early. Make your readers work for them by turning the pages and thus keep the tension alive.