Two weeks ago I attended the PostSecret event at Rutgers University, Camden campus with my younger sister. For those of you who don’t know, PostSecret is a community art project started by Frank Warren a handful of years ago where people send in anonymous postcards inscribed with a secret they’ve never shared before and Frank posts a collection of them on the Postsecret blog every Sunday; some of you might remember its initial launch to fame with the All American Reject’s popular music video.
and has done hundreds of presentations on the lecture circuit. Two weeks ago, people revealed secrets varying from embarrassing public peeing experiences, to admitting considering suicide, to getting down on one knee and proposing to a girlfriend left completely out of the loop until that moment (this kind of made my sister and mine’s lives).
All it took was a single sentence; a single honest, trembling-voice sentence and the entire room felt like they knew the speaker. Secrets are like an introduction to a person; their hopes, fears, and driving motivations. As I sat there listening to people’s secrets, I felt like I was surrounded by characters. When writing fiction, sometimes I have a hard time identifying what the main character’s driving motivations are; I have a hard time rationalizing what they should/would say or do because I don’t know what makes them tick.
Secrets are what make people tick. I’ve talked about this recently concerning family ancestors and the need to dig up those secrets to write good memoir. When writing fiction, as the author, you need to know your characters secrets; if you know their inner-most secret, then you’ll know how they’ll react to every scene you put them in. The audience doesn’t have to know that secret until the end of the book. Theory: this is a good writer’s dirty little secret.
Here’s my favorite writing prompt: go to the PostSecret blog, or pick up one of the books and read until you connect with a particular secret. Use it as the first sentence to a new story; it can be your story–one thing Frank mentioned during the event was that a lot of people have the same secret–or a fictional character’s story. It can be a story about what lead them to admit that secret; the emotional struggle that led them to physically mail it in.
What’s your character’s secret?