Kiss the Everygirl family goodbye! Failure to disclose food items to the US Customs and Border Control can rack up to $10,000 in fines and penalties! It’s srs bsns, people!
(For the record, I’ve never smuggled meat-paste from Canada. I’ve never even been to Canada. I’m certainly not waiting for any 7-year statute of limitations to expire. *shifty eyes*)
A Whole Family of Tropes
The Family Secret trope has many variations, from the classic Skeleton-in-the-Closet to the urban-fantasy Supernaturals-in-Hiding. Criminal records, past misdeeds, a shameful heritage, special powers, coveted talismans: any or all of these could spell impending conflict and/or doom.
The drama! The angst! What will happen when the secret comes out?!
My favorite use of this trope is when the family keeps a secret so close to the vest that the main character has no clue it exists. Because responsible parents would never warn their offspring that a dire and awful circumstance hangs over them all like a Sword of Damocles. There’s no reason whatsoever to burden the precious child with that knowledge.
A built-in contradiction
I get bugged when the main is portrayed as level-headed, logical, and responsible, yet is kept ignorant solely for the convenience of the plot. If it’s a matter of life and death (and in some instances, someone’s already died because of the secret), it seems illogical not to sit down and have a straightforward conversation.
“Honey, we’re direct descendants of Attila the Hun. There’s this cult following that wants to reestablish his empire and make us the rulers of Eastern Europe, but your dad is allergic to swords and bloodshed, so we’re in hiding. Don’t talk to strangers, mm’kay?”
“Sweetie-pie, your mom and I used to be bank robbers. We double-crossed one of our partners and left him for dead, but he’s alive and he’s looking for the loot we stashed in the Appalachian foothills. Once he finds it he wants to burn us all in our beds. Watch your back coming to and from school, would you please?”
“Pumpkin, I had a love affair with Thoth. You’re part ibis, and you’re going to sprout feathers, and people are going to hunt you for those feathers because they’re magic and can grant mad writing skillz when powdered and rubbed on the face. Steer clear of poets and novelists, I beg you.”
(I was going to make a remark about when the secret is too over-the-top to be believable, but actually that last example sounds hilarious. Someone write that story, stat.)
Timing is only convenient to the plot
If these conversations take place at all, it’s never by choice in a quiet moment. See, we can’t give the main character too long to process their family secrets because, again, drama and angst. Instead, the secret gets squelched and suppressed until everything finally comes bursting forth like filthy water from a patchwork dam to flood the character’s life with destruction and devastation.
Unless the buildup was overdone and the secret’s not really that big a deal. In that case the “destruction and devastation” are manufactured and the whole premise falls flat on its face and everyone wants a refund because it was so anticlimactic.
(Those Family Secret situations are the absolute worst.)
Of course, some characters shouldn’t be entrusted with secrets at all. Like, ever. If the MC could be a poster-child for Ritalin advocates, for example, the parents are probably wise to keep their secrets to themselves.
Unfortunately, it seems like these are the stories where the secret emerges early on, which leaves me going, “Really, Mom and Dad? Your kid was practically licking the paint off the walls two minutes ago. Everyone can see that they’re going to turn around and screw everything up so that the author can cobble together a plot out of this little ‘oopsie.’ What were you thinking?!”
(I may have some strong feelings on this subject. I will repent.)
But for all my complaints, I have to admit: the Family Secret done well is one of my favorite tropes ever. It can invoke drama, humor, horror, betrayal, and a host of other emotions, and it wields a narrative punch that can suck me right into a story, or kick me right back out.
It is, in short, a wonderful tool. Use it wisely. (Or not at all.)