The Secret Self In Storytelling

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

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

DENNIS FOSTER’S FOUR STEPS TO SYMPATHY

When writers allow readers insight into a character’s secret self readers tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the confessor.

This 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

PRIVATE, PUBLIC AND SOCIAL CLASS

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.

THE USEFULNESS OF THE CONFESSION

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.

Header painting: Eastman Johnson – The Toilet

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