[This is a slightly altered version of one of my earliest blog posts, cleaned up as a standalone piece.
My biggest plotting pet peeve can be summed up in the following phrase:
“I can’t tell you —for your own protection!”
It’s often used in connection with characters who have secret identities or live double lives. So, it’s common when dealing with superheroes, but I’ve also seen it in urban fantasy, thrillers, mystery novels, and it pops up every now and again in high fantasy. You have a hero who is supposed to be trustworthy keeping a huge secret from his or her loved ones, coworkers, etc. The secret is usually justified by saying something to the effect that if any of these people knew the secret, it would put them in greater danger. The problem is, these people are usually in a lot of danger anyway, and keeping them in the dark doesn’t serve any useful purpose. It’s a lazy, cheap, overused way of creating plot tension, and it becomes an excuse to keep characters from growing and changing in their relationships with one another.
- If the secret doesn’t come out, the secret keeper never has to take responsibility for lying or acknowledge that the lie is pointless.
- The friends and loved ones never get to truly be a part of the hero’s life, and they’re never given the chance to make their own choices.
- If the secret does come out, it traditionally happens at the end of the story.
- The audience never has to see the hero face any long-term consequences of having lied for so long, and nobody ever questions whether or not this person is really trustworthy.
This plot device forces a character who is written to be heroic to spend months or years lying to everyone around them and acting like the lie is a good thing.Unless there are outside forces (like a government agency or an actual JOB REQUIREMENT) I don’t think those kind of secrets are worth keeping, and I certainly don’t think that the hero should be admired for keeping them.
I also think there are still plenty of good stories that can be told when characters are allowed to fully share one another’s lives and be on equal footing. Tessa Noel and Duncan MacLeod from Highlander: The Series come to mind as an example of a couple who made this work. (I’m purposely ignoring what happened at the end of Season 1, because it was cheap and lazy.)
Now, I know that there are some more recent examples where secrets like this come out in the middle of the story arc or in a long-running series where the secret comes out mid-run.
One of my favorites like this is Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. (I’m not really a comic book fan, so I’m not comfortable talking about comic story-arcs.)
The Iron Man movie franchise is (sort of) an example too. Tony’s identity wasn’t really a secret long enough, and he didn’t LIE about it, but he did keep a pretty huge secret from Pepper in Iron Man Two (“What do you mean you’re not dying? Did you just say you’re dying?“) I’m still not sure it counts because he at least knew he should have told her.
I think stories like that are great, because the heroes have to learn and grow past their overprotectivess or fear of intimacy or whatever else it is that is really driving them to keep their dumb secret. Supporting characters have to move past whatever assumptions and frustrations they had been holding on to, and everyone has to figure out how to integrate both sides of the character with the double life.
More recent books and films seem to be moving away from this mentality that a secret identity can never be shared, and I hope that trend continues.