Writing Hacks: Character Depth with (Secret) Secrets

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

You might love LOST, you might hate LOST, you may have never even seen LOST, but one thing is likely true: you’ve heard of LOST. The first three or so seasons of LOST changed the way television is made. It occupies a transitional phase between the episodic TV era, where every episode stands alone, and the serialized TV era, where every season is an ongoing story.

But one thing that’s easy to forget, with all the big mysteries and the smoke monsters and the hatches and the Others is that the real engine of those first couple seasons weren’t the mysteries. What was great about LOST was the characters.

Damon Lindelof’s gotten a lot of grief, but one thing he’s always been great at — from LOST to The Leftovers to Watchmen — is how deep his characters go. Lindelof writes characters very well. Like any skilled dramatic writer, he makes sure every character has strong goal, a difficult obstacle, and clearly defined point of view.

But he also has a hack. From Film Crit Hulk at Birth Movies Death:

[Damon Lindelof] decides every single one of [the] characters he writes has a secret. It may not always be exposed or be intrinsic to the plot, but he’s aware of what the secret is and it utterly informs his writing…. It instantly gets your brain to think about character in a rounded way. It give a character depth and texture. It gives them a psyche. And if this secret ends up inform the plot…it can totally be of great use to the film or show you are making.

In LOST these secrets drove the first few seasons of the show. Every main character had an emotionally fraught reason for being on Oceanic flight 815. The how and the when of revealing those secrets gave not just the characters, but the show itself a psyche.

The best mysteries of the show weren’t about what was in the hatch or whether or not the escaped the island. The best mysteries were the ones inside the secret heart of each character. All of those secrets got revealed by about Season 3, which is about when many folks fell away from the show.

Give each character a secret. Never reveal it. Keep that psyche rich.

Check out previous Writing Hacks!

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