In writing a novel, there are many ways to enrich the characters. Some writers fill notebooks with complete details. They include every aspect: height, weight, hair and eye color, college attended, hobbies, astrology sign, mother’s maiden name, father’s occupation. The writer plans carefully and leaves nothing to chance. All this detail, whether or not it is eventually spelled out in the book, helps to make the character real, both to the writer, and subsequently to the reader.
A few years back at a conference workshop, I heard a statement about character development that I found far more helpful than creating long lists of detail. “Give your hero a secret,” the speaker said. “What does he not want anyone to know?” A secret adds rich layers to a novel.
On Sunday my husband and I took a bus into New York City to meet up with our oldest son. We enjoyed the day, walking around together, stopping into shops and cafés, seeing the sites. As we paused for several minutes to look out over a snow-covered Central Park, a thought occurred to me. Cities, like characters in a novel, have secrets. These secrets can be anywhere.
Who sleeps in a snow-covered maintenance shed in Central Park? What lies buried under mounds of uncollected garbage? What crime was just committed backstage of a Broadway play, or in the halls of justice? Essential to the plot, these are all secrets in setting. They are simply waiting to be revealed.
On our ride home, I mused over the term “setting secrets.” I realized that I had several ingrained in my own stories. A construction site hides a murder victim. A farmhouse conceals a kidnapped child. A small town denies its guilt over an injustice. In each of these stories, I believe my description of the setting became deeper, and darker, because the setting hid a secret.
I’ve heard it said that thinking of your setting as a character will add richness to your story. Take it a step beyond that. As you do for your characters, give your setting a secret, too. See what happens. ∞