Michaeline: Nixie Voss and the Culture of Secrets

The lover of a rich man sneaks a kiss with a geisha behind the rich man's back.

Oh, we could be heroes, or villains, depending on the secrets we keep. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking about my “villain” this week. I put it in quotes, just like David Bowie’s “‘Heroes'”, because she’s not really a villain (See songfacts.com for the story behind “‘Heroes'”). She’s the heroine from some points of view, and her weakness is a certain determination to follow the plan to the bitter end, no matter what crops up in the meantime. She gets sidetracked from her goal in favor of The Plan, and she becomes a tragic heroine (or a foiled villain, depending on who you are rooting for).

The thing is, she is steeped in secrets. There’s a lot about her that even I don’t know about. She tells me it’s really none of my business. The supernatural world she lives in is full of secrets, too. It’s considered a serious breach of etiquette to pry into other creatures’ magical business. Oh, their friendships and sexual alliances and business partnerships are all fodder for a busy rumor mill, but there’s a reticence about talking about magic unless it’s between two dear friends having a very intimate gossip under the moonlight.

And Nixie has been under a geas (What’s a geas? See TVTropes. Or Wikipedia.), which is a magical compulsion to do something. Usually, one of the corollaries of a geas is that the Bound Being cannot talk about the geas. It makes sense; it muddies the trail to the original spellcaster. Can you imagine? You come up to your girlfriend who has suddenly taken up tunneling under castle walls, and ask her what’s going on. “Sir Roland put me under a geas, and I would really like to go home and fix my nails.” You’d go after Sir Roland, right? But if the girlfriend starts stammering and swearing and can’t give you anything concrete . . . well, it’s going to take some time to figure out that Sir Roland is the cause of all of this.

So, Nixie has been under a spell that prohibits her from talking about a major motivation. Now she’s free. Does she talk about it? Under what circumstances?

In our society as a whole, secrets definitely have their place. That said, we walk a fine line between holding secrets and being misunderstood, and being very open and honest and being understood too well. Secrets can give us a sense of belonging in a club . . . and that sense of belonging is very important to humans as social animals. Right up there with sex, power and elephants. On the other hand, secrets can be shameful and corrosive.

I don’t think I’m a natural secret-keeper. Of course, I can do it, but I don’t always recognize the hints that something is supposed to be kept in confidence. You have to tell me . . . . I like to talk, I like to share information, and I think that informs my choices to be a writer and a teacher. So, is Nixie like me? Is she a secret-keeper because she was forced to by duty, circumstance and culture? For her, secrecy also provides a lot of safety from both mere mortals and lovers. Or does she like weaving a web of mystery? Is she the kind of creature who finds her power in keeping information to a minimum and doling it out only to her favorites and those who can help her? Does she look at the truth as a commodity and a weapon?

Secrets can lead to the dreaded “stupid misunderstanding”. But sometimes, our characters have very good reasons for keeping things secret, and for hoping that being misunderstood will be easier than being honest and open.

So, that’s what I’ve been wrestling with this week. Have you read any stories where a secret has been used with particularly stunning results? I’m having trouble thinking of anything right now. I mean, every mystery has a secret at its core. I can’t think of a single thriller that didn’t have a hidden aspect only revealed gradually. On that level, I can think of a thousand examples of good secrets. I don’t know what I’m looking for. Maybe the secret that didn’t really seem to be a secret? The unusual secret?

Oh, here’s one: the middle of The Crying Game where rocky biography suddenly gains stakes, and becomes thrilling (IMDb). I remember watching that one in Japan in a theater full of foreigners, and when that secret was revealed, when the girlfriend was shown to be a boy, there was such a gasp that arose from the audience!

One of the most annoying comments afterward, I remember, was a friend saying, “It wasn’t a surprise to me. I was wondering why that guy had a wig on during the first part of the movie.” Suddenly, she was a part of a different club, she was one of The Ones Who Knew. It was a cooler club, but it must have been a lonelier club, I think . . . .

Secrets bind. Secrets divide. Secrets cover a wound like a bandage, leaving it to heal or fester. Secrets.

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: Nixie Voss and the Culture of Secrets

  1. The first book that springs to mind when thinking about secrets is Jenny’s Faking It. Tilly spends a lot of time and effort trying to hide the fact that she comes from a family of art forgers, and other characters in the stories have things they are trying to hide as well. All those secrets lead to tension and, when they are revealed at the end, a great HEA.

    • Yes! That’s exactly the kind of vibe I’m aiming for. I want the secrets to seem to be worth keeping, and worth sharing only with very special people. If Tilly and Co. shared the secrets with everyone . . . well, one could argue that life would be much easier. They’d have to declare bankruptcy, and go to work doing something else. Nobody would trust them with art sales. OTOH, I think Matilda could still do art. I really like that Davy also comes from a background that must be kept hidden. It’s such a lovely relief when the two discover they can trust each other with all the secrets.

      So . . . my WIP is kind of a what’s next. What if Faking It were a series? Davy lost his money (again), and had to figure out a more honest way of making a living, and Tilda had to help him (but maybe she lost went blind and lost her ability to paint). Oh . . . that sounds terribly dark. Not what I’m going for at all. I wonder how Clea would fit into this dark story of secrets. She’s got good reasons for keeping her past under wraps, as well.

  2. As I read this post, I started parsing through the difference between a secret, as you’ve defined it here, and a reversal. Jenny wrote some blog posts recently (in the past month?) about using reversals effectively. There have to be clues, they have to make sense, when they are revealed the reader needs to feel like she’s in on it and not like she was duped. The reversal needs to have been there all along such that once we see it, we understand how the clues were right in front of us all along.

    I think there’s grave danger in keeping secrets from readers. IIRC, in Faking It, the reader knew the secrets pretty early, even if the other characters didn’t. Withholding a secret from other characters is one thing; withholding it from readers is quite another and should only be done if it’s imperative. In Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, she gives a really compelling reason to reveal a character’s secrets: it allows the readers to understand her deeper struggle and connect in a more meaningful way. I think if a character, esp a protag, keeps secrets from the reader, it creates emotional distance (just like IRL!), and is a risk.

    If Nixie is desperate to tell her lover the truth about Sir Roland but hears herself spitting out lie after lie because of the geas, and sees her lover withdrawing as a result and knowing there is nothing she can do about it, the emotional stakes just skyrocketed. So secrets – yes! Secrets from readers – probably not.

    • This is an interesting distinction. In one of the mailing lists I belong to, we label things as Doylistic (ie: from the writer’s perspective as the Creator God of the story) and Watsonian (from the perspective of the characters inside the story).

      I don’t like it when the characters (especially a main character) know the answer to a secret, but keep it hidden from the readers. It CAN be pulled off, but the narrator/character has to have a certain kind of arch relationship with the reader — something that flirts with breaking the fourth wall, so to speak.

      If a non-POV character has a secret, and one of the POV characters discover it along with me-the-reader, that’s pretty cool. Misery loves company, and being fooled together is kind of bonding, IMO.

      One thing that I can kind of go with is that the reader knows the secret, but the POV character doesn’t. Taken to an extreme, I get a low opinion of the POV character for being too blind to see the obvious. But handled well, it can be kind of thrilling.

      So, now I have Nixie. She’s been under a geas. She’s been released (and it just occurs to me, according to geas rules, she would have lost some power that they would have gained under the geas! So, that helps me make the conflict more balanced. She also dopplegangers the hero in that aspect, because he’s lost a lot of powers, too! I’m pretty excited to stumble upon this! Thanks, Nancy!). Ahem, she’s just been released from the geas, and she’s maybe embarrassed by her actions in the past and doesn’t want to advertise that she’s the kind of girl who can fall under a geas. She misses her powers, but she likes her new-found freedom to move. (Oooh. That weakens the conflict a bit too much. Must find a reason why she wants what she wants from the hero now.) She won’t return to being under a geas.

      Huh. Maybe she can straight-up ask him for what she wants. Huh. There’s a lot of thinking that needs to go on here (-:.

      But anyway, long story short, I do agree with you that it’s tricky keeping secrets from readers. I’m not so sure secrets and reversals are the same . . . they could be in the same neighborhood, but I think the function is somewhat different. A secret could be a reversal . . . .

  3. Pingback: Michaeline: Secrets, Secrets Never Cease – Eight Ladies Writing

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