My Biggest Pop-Culture Plottin Pet Peeve


[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.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Cover of "Iron Man (Two-Disc Special Coll...

Cover via Amazon

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.



6 thoughts on “My Biggest Pop-Culture Plottin Pet Peeve

  1. Oh my gosh, if ever there were a plot device that gets me shouting at the screen, it’s this. You see it a lot in TV Shows, I think, where the agony of them not revealing The Big Secret (Identity) is compounded week over week.

    I think that the character who, for me, most embodies this plot device is Spider-Man. And I think that it’s something in particular that he picked up with the Death of Gwen Stacy, one of the few comics characters who has remained dead over the years (although there is now an alternate universe Gwen Stacy running around as Spider-Gwen, and in her universe Peter Parker died. Because why not?…). So Spider-Man has the learning moment of what will happen to those around him should his identity come out, and that’s combined with his whole with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility mentality because he got his uncle killed by being a selfish non-hero when he first gets his powers. All of which is to say two things: With Spider-Man they kind of earned this storyline, and more importantly, because Spider-Man was at the beginning of the current trend of comic book adaptations, everyone is copying the story elements of Spider-Man thinking they can copy the success.

    This plot device would work if it were rare, would work if it was just tied up in one character or one show or something. But I think instead it’s part of an even bigger lazy plot device that I now feel like I want to write up something about: the plot that would be resolved with a simple conversation. The whole thing where one misunderstanding, or one thing withheld or kept secret, would resolve the entire plot. And then, meanwhile, the longer that secret goes on, the worse the reveal ends up being on the characters and their relationships. This is like, literally the plot structure of each season of Supernatural. It’s all the drama of the superhero identity reveal – which is always hilarious where the hero has a team of like ten people they’re working with that know their identity, plus some huge secret government organization who all know the identity, but then they won’t tell like their love interest or their family. Because drama! Because what would Spider-Man do. Something.



      That’s my very articulate reply.

      I just hate that entire thing where I’m getting ready to kill the characters because the whole problem could resolve with ONE CONVERSATION.

      Also why I don’t read romance books because I’m usually so frustrated with this kind of plotting that I can’t even take the books seriously.


      • Yeah I think maybe it’s… in a movie, you get the feeling that one conversation could solve it. In a TV Show, as time passes, it’s way more than one conversation: like, the opportunity keeps presenting itself, the time keeps being good to say something. When you get to the point that a book is doing it… yikes. Come on now.

        Ironically, I’m trying to think of the last time I read this problem actually in the comics. I think they’ve just moved way past this. Hmmm… maybe Kick-Ass, which is by the same (awful) comics writer as Marvel’s Civil War (comics), which also dealt with revealing identities. So there we go. Mark Millar is stuck in this mentality.


  2. I hate that, too. “Suits” is going along pretty interestingly, because Mike (the character with a secret he can’t risk telling too many people) has tons of reasons to not tell a soul… yet he refuses to allow himself to be with his crush until he confesses to her, because he doesn’t want a relationship built on lies. So far? One of the best decisions he’s made for himself.


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