Writing Tip: Character Secrets and Leaving Breadcrumbs

By Cynthia Sax on October 11, 2017

All characters have secrets. Heck, all people have secrets. Part of the fun for me, as a reader, is trying to figure out a character’s secret. I’ll turn the virtual page merely to find that out.

When I was a newer writer, I thought I had to keep everything about this secret hush-hush. I wrote the secret as a total surprise to reading buddies.

The problem with that is… it squashes the fun of trying to guess the secret. We, readers, need hints to guess a secret. We need to know the character HAS a secret.

It also isn’t realistic. A character’s secret is part of him (I’ll use he/him in this post because I’m lazy but the character, of course, could be any sex). The character will have a reaction whenever he thinks of his secret. He’ll become nervous or upset if he’s in a situation that reminds him of his secret. He’ll react badly when the other characters are discussing something that might reveal his secret.

So writers leave, what I call, breadcrumbs throughout the story until it is time to reveal the secret. These clues can range from

“Bob had a secret and no one would ever learn it.” <– This is about as obvious as a writer can be.


“Bob walked into the space and all chatter stopped. They’d been yammering on about the Alpha 5 mission. He knew that deep down in his guilt-twisted gut.”


“Bob completed his sixth perimeter check of the shift. It was five more than mandatory but he knew, from bitter experience, one wasn’t sufficient to keep anyone safe.”


“Bob swept his fingers over the four dog tags he wore, his lips flattening.”

These breadcrumbs don’t have to be all different. Repetition is powerful. The first time Bob touches his dog tags after making a mistake could be a coincidence. The third time he does this communicates significance.

Some writers like to leave bigger breadcrumbs as the secret reveal approaches. This makes sense as the character will become more nervous and more focused on his secret as he mentally prepares to share it with his love interest.

Longer stories will naturally result in more hints being left for reading buddies. The character with the secret will think of it more often in a 400 page story than he would in a 40 page story.

The character shouldn’t ALWAYS be thinking about his secret, however. His secret is an object of shame, of pain. He’ll do his best to avoid thinking about it, push it to the back of his mind. And, as writers, we don’t want to hit our readers over the head with the secret.

It is a delicate balance. We don’t want reading buddies to guess the secret early yet we want them, during the secret reveal, to say, “Of COURSE, that’s his secret! I should have known that.”

I rely on my awesome editor to tell me if I’m being too heavy-handed or holding too much back. Other writing buddies use their beta readers for that feedback. It is very difficult for us to judge this for ourselves.

Those are my tips on writing character secrets. Do you have any questions or any insights you’d like to add?


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Seeking Vector

A cyborg with a secret… A female seeking the truth…

Vector, the C Model captain of the Freedom, is a cyborg many warriors wish to emulate. He fights fiercely, leads with honor, has earned the respect and loyalty of his crew. But no being, not even a cyborg, is perfect. Since arriving at the Homeland, Vector has been hiding a dark truth about his past. If his secret is exposed, he could lose everything – his position, his ship, and his life.

Kasia excels at uncovering secrets. Half a lifespan ago, her curiosity placed her on the Humanoid Alliance’s kill list. Now she has accessed information the cyborg council would prefer remain hidden. Their warriors are hunting her and won’t rest until she’s dead.

When Vector arrives on her battle station, all grim determination, gray skin, and bulging muscles, Kasia knows he has been sent to kill her. That doesn’t stop her from wanting the dominant cyborg. She senses the savage nature under the male’s controlled exterior, sees the mysteries in his brilliant blue eyes, craves the roughness of his touch. She will risk all she has to experience his embrace.

Kasia braved the cyborg council’s ire for a reason. If she doesn’t convince Vector to act on the information she uncovered, the enemy could destroy his home planet and render every cyborg in the universe immobile.

Can a doubting C Model warrior learn to trust and to love before it is too late?

Seeking Vector is Book 10 in the Cyborg Sizzle series and is a STAND-ALONE story.
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