The Secret Self In Storytelling

Eastman Johnson - The Toilet

All of us have a Public, Private and a Secret Self.

Clarissa had a theory in those days . . . that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death . . . perhaps—perhaps.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

The degree of delineation and the stakes depend on our individual circumstances. Because we rarely have insight into the secret selves of others, fiction functions as a useful window. Fiction shows us that we are not alone, whatever our secret self may be.

That, my dear, is what makes a character interesting, their secrets.

Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden


What we consider secret depends on time and place. Historian Jill Lepore draws a distinction between mystery, privacy and secrecy, three separate epistemological categories:

MYSTERY: what we can’t know, but are asked to believe.

PRIVACY: what is known, but not to everyone.

  • the law allows us to keep what we know to ourselves
  • the right to be left alone
  • What is considered private depends on the time and culture. The invention of the smartphone challenges the concept of privacy.

SECRECY: the secularisation of mystery. What is known, but not by everyone.

  • The European ‘age of secrecy’ happened between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries
  • This was the age of the secret sciences, considered ‘good knowledge’: everyone kept secrets: the state, nature, the human heart, trade guilds, God.
  • This culture was the perfect setting for occutism: spy networks, esoterica, ciphers and secret societies (the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the Illuminati)
  • Even into the eighteenth century, the common people had no idea about the level of state debt, details of taxation, the size of their own country’s army.
  • What is considered secret depends on the time and culture. For instance, secrets of nature were exposed after invention of the camera.


Jack will act in ways which recognise, and are sensitive to, Jill’s interests, only if he is able to grasp how things are for Jill, and understands why they matter to her; and, further, recognises that things being that way for Jill makes a claim on some of his own attitudes and behaviour.

Any Jack’s gaining access to Jill’s perspective on life thus demands a degree of sympathy. But when Jill’s interests and aims lie outside the normal range of Jack’s own experience, his ability to sympathise with Jill’s concerns enough to be considerate about them in relevant ways, will require him to see beyond his own usual range. Most people can learn about the needs and interests of others by extrapolating from their own experience and from their observation of people around them, but if these were the only resources for insight, the scope of an individual’s sympathies would be limited. And this is where the narrative arts come in. Exposure to the narrative arts overcomes that limitation: it enormously widens an attentive individual’s perceptions of human experience, and enables him — vicariously, or as a fly-on-the-wall witness — to see into lives, conditions and experiences which he might never encounter in practice. This extension and education of the sympathies is therefore the basis for a richer moral experience and a more refined capacity for moral response.

A.C. Grayling, The Reason Of Things

Grayling goes on to explain that educating moral sensibility through education ‘has a general tendency, not a universal effect, and works by heightening morally relevant insight in at leat many cases, in not all of which will the insight necessarily conduce to the good (after all, the sadist has to have insight into his victim’s circumstances in order to dow hat he does; so mere possession of the insight is also not a guarantee of such goods as kindness and consideration).’


Interiority describes parts of a story that convey a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Storytellers achieve interiority when they let the audience inside the character’s head, revealing the part of a person normally hidden to the outside world. Written stories are especially well-suited to conveying interiority. On screen it is much more difficult.

Because interiority is one huge advantage of the written word, writers would be silly not to make the most of it. 

In terms of interiority, I am always begging writers for more interiority, and less Bad Telling, and less Physical Telling (which we will get into next week and which I do admit to using once in my rewritten examples below). But I think for writers unused to writing good interiority, you can cross the line over to telling every once in a while and we won’t really notice it that much or fault you. It’s when interiority is missing that telling becomes a problem.

One of my most frequent comments on manuscripts is highlighting a piece of telling and writing “Interiority instead.” I harp mercilessly on all of my clients to include more interiority.

KidLit, Mary Kole


When writing, a storyteller decides how much of each character’s secret life to expose. The more of their secret and private selves are exposed, the more rounded the characterisation. By allowing readers insight into a character’s secret self, readers tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the ‘confessor’.

A four step progression comes from the work of Dennis Foster who wrote Confession and Complicity in Narrative (1987). Though these steps apply to fictional characters, they apply in real life as well. This is the astounding power of fiction — when we learn that others have a secret self, and when we learn to empathise with fictional characters via this secret self, we tend to apply these skills to real people.

Secrets bind and separate in strict accordance with who’s in on them.

Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin


Freedman and Hellerstein (1981), write of “the doctrine of the separate spheres” which prescribed British women’s “personal lives centre around home, husband and children”. These values were of course exported to the colonies by British settlers.

What happened with the separation of home and work? Families became more private and a refuge from the world. This reinforced the Victorian middle-class Cult of Domesticity. Women were idealised as “the angel of the house”. Home was the woman’s private sphere; the public world was a male domain. This was not disrupted until women demanded emancipation. With emancipation came a natural blurring of the public/private divide.

But this was a middle-class thing. For working class families, there was no clean distinction between public and private life. Judy Giles (1995) suggests that the concept of privacy for these groups means simply ‘not public’. The middle-class ideal was to ‘keep yourself to yourself’, so some understanding of private self and inner life was required. Middle-class women understood privacy and what was their own business.


Stories which focus on a character’s Secret Self are often described as confessional. There is a huge advantage to writing confessions — the confessions themselves lend suspense. This suspense is caused by the reader’s desire to acquire certain information from the character. Each new piece of information functions as a reveal. Reveals are a necessary component of any suspense story.

Confessional stories have the quality of immediacy, especially when a character conveys information directly to the reader. Readers feel like the special chosen ones, with characters conveying secrets directly to them.


I’m in no position to offer a comparative analysis of how various religions deal with the concept of the secret self, but I’ll offer this from an anthropologist studying supernatural beliefs and Pentecostalism Papua New Guinea. In short, sin is thought to exist in hidden areas of the body, especially in the uterus. Hence, women are blamed more often for concealing things they shouldn’t. This plays into an historic, enduring, cross-cultural notion that women are basically liars:

Pentecostals often describe two types of Christian—“spirit Christian” (the truly devout) and “body Christians” (those too concerned about material things, those who do not truly “believe” or have “faith”)—a sort of interdenominational pejorative that condemns doctrinal emphasis on outward ritual rather than inner belief (Keane 2007). The outer body should ideally reveal an inner “spirit body,” as, for example, through the kinds of ecstatic experience often associated with Pentecostal religious fervor.

In contrast, sin is understood as hidden in the body. Sermons that focus on sin as hidden thinking or emotions are interpreted by people listening as themselves a form of veiled speech referring to a problem of great consequence in communities: witchcraft. Through notions of hidden resentment or unseen discord, this Christian discourse associates sin with the gwumu witchcraft …. Following the sermon on Cain and Abel, church members told me that the visiting preacher was referring to witchcraft by using a local metapragmatic category of talk called tok bokis (literally, “box talk,” but usually referred to as “veiled speech”) or gramiyi harekeneve (“hidden talk”) in Dano. Ideas about hidden sin are extremely common in Pentecostal services and discourse, and the idioms in which hidden sin is described are frequently also associated with witchcraft. Sin is often described in the local language as hidden in the bilum (“netbag”) of the self, where the word bilum (ro in Dano) also means uterus, the location in the body where gwumu lives. This is a gendered, but flexible, discourse, as some accusations are also made against men. Nevertheless, Sunday morning altar calls seemed to me to be directed mainly at women congregants; speakers might even turn toward the side of the church where women sit when discussing hidden sin.

Becoming Witches


Nikos Aliagas is a photographer of celebrities but he doesn’t ‘know how to use photoshop’. He shoots famous people in natural light, aiming to show something that isn’t visible with all the other, modified, highly staged photographs which abound, and which are more familiar to us all.

Header painting: Eastman Johnson – The Toilet