Oct 18

Back Secrets

Lately I’ve been enjoying a relative new series of mysteries based on Agatha Christi novels featuring her amateur sleuth, Miss Marple. What has struck me is how important the back story, or rather the back secrets, are to many of Christi’s characters.

A back secret is a character’s hidden back story which altered their character because of deeds done (sometimes out of ignorance, anger, spite, guilt, lust, or greed), secrets kept, or mistakes made. These events, whatever they are, have had a profound impact on the characters for the better or, usually, the worst but have been the prime catalyst of making the character whom he or she is by the time of the story.

These are the kinds of things characters are running away from or are trying to live down. They are also the factors which help make more complicated and interesting characters.

Here are some example of secret back stories that might well make for fascinating characters. Imagine a character who:
was the witness to a horrible crime or accident but was afraid to ever tell anyone because of who was involved;
is ashamed of the suicide of a close relative (parent, sibling, cousin, etc.) or just a witness to the event;
is guilty but undiscovered, of a crime or is responsible for a significant accident;
because of a lie told, events lead to a disaster in another person’s life;
had sex with relative of current partner (happens a lot more in real life than I would have thought);
aided the enemy (not just in wars, but across culture or class lines);
used to be poor, now rich or vica versa;
“passing” of any kind (gay/black/transgender/class);
deep shame over ethnic or sexual roots;
a parent who favored one kid over the other or the either child under such circumstances;

Here are some specific examples – the kind of thing worth keeping a file of for your writing, not necessarily for a project at hand but one you’ll write in the future.

A minister has an affair with a young woman but decides to break it off because he’s tired of her, or some other trivial reason, and the woman kills herself over the rejection.

A man as a teenager accidentally started a forest fire that claimed the life of several innocent people.

A salesman who used to drink a lot, killed a child driving impaired. He was punished for it (perhaps this was back before the penalties for such crimes were as severe as they are today). He has moved on with his life only to be haunted by that memory for the rest of his life.

Someone who is *not* guilty of a minor crime of some sort, but who took the blame to protect someone else in the past. If the protected person later went on, say, to commit murder or other more serious crimes, the one who took the blame for the earlier offence is then responsible to some degree for the later offences.

Jokingly exposing a hidden truth about a friend or family, leading to the loss of a job, status, fortune, or whatever – even loss of life.

One of the good uses of back secrets is to explain the behavior or motives of a character in your subplot if not your primary storyline. Maybe a secondary story where the girl helps someone else out of a situation that has parallels your main story and a non-obvious way.

Failing to act can be a back-story secret, but it’s dangerous if you’re not careful. Particularly new writers who are not aware, can create circumstances where what they make a “passive” character instead of an “active” one. This happens where thing happen to the character and thus he or she becomes the victim rather than being a person who takes their own life in their hands and makes choices and takes actions which impact not only his/her life, but also the story. If the character in question is a compulsive over- compensator (active) – for example because he/she once let a friend die (in battle, didn’t give help when asked, etc.), for example, this can be a powerful thing that makes a seemingly passive action into an active one.

Usually late revelation of the back secret keeps the unexplained characters actions and attitudes mysterious. Once revealed, the value of the back secret is spent. Its value comes in carefully revealed by seemingly unrelated hints which all come together with a bang at the end.

Noticed the importance of:


Build your own list and collect examples as you see them in life around you, stories your read or see or ask yourself, “Why would someone possibly do that?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>