Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quiet characters

So first off, I should say we had a great meeting this evening. (Thanks to Michelle for attending to the technical difficulties with Skype.) Lisa was happy; Daylight Savings doesn't begin for a bit in the Netherlands, so she joined us at the early hour of 11:30 pm rather than the normal half-past midnight. 

But let's talk about me.

And quiet characters. I like them. They're interesting and conflicted and there's so much going on inside! My main character in The Looking Glass, Elsbeth, is quiet in the first few chapters. She's quiet anyway, but it counts more in the first chapters because I want readers to, you know, read. 

So I've been thinking about how to make quiet characters engaging. It started with Nathan Bransford's post on unsympathetic characters where Merry Monteleone commented that she also didn't like characters who "aren't strong enough for the task until midway through the novel."

Some of us begin our novels with 40 pages of throat-clearing. Others have 40 pages of figuring out what to do with the MC. So, like Pooh, I thought, thought, thought about some favorite quiet characters of mine: Anne Eliott (Persuasion), Sara Crewe (A Little Princess), and Ani (Shannon Hale's Goose Girl). Here's what I came up with for keeping quiet- even weak!- characters interesting.

1. They should have some strengths- even if they aren't recognized, even if they don't use them. Anne Eliott holds her family together. She's a sensible (though mostly ignored) voice at family discussions, and has a better understanding of her family than they do. Ani knows animal speech. It doesn't help her with life at court, but there's a sense- right from the beginning- that she possesses a powerful gift. Anyway, I had patience with both Anne and Ani because I knew they had some substance. I wanted to be there when their worlds encountered that substance.  (Why does that remind me of something hitting a windshield?)

2. They know they're weak.  Ani knew she couldn't interact with people as a princess should. Her distress that she couldn't make small talk with members of court, speak persuasively , or defend herself kept me reading.  It immediately introduced internal conflict. This is very different from characters who are upset about bad circumstances. Upset about circumstances = whiny. Upset that weakness caused circumstances = intriguing, at least for a few more chapters.

3. They're quiet because they choose to be. I still remember the first time I read the scene where Miss Minchin boxes Sara's ears, and Sara just looks at her and laughs. I almost wanted to have my ears boxed just so I could respond the same way. (Almost.) There's a big difference between someone who can't respond to a situation and someone who won't. I think the key to making such scenes work is to have significant provocation, and a clear sense of what the MC is doing instead of responding. (In Sara's case: what if Miss M had just struck a real princess?) If the reader doesn't know how the MC is handling the provocation, the MC will seem vacuous. 
(Can I add a pet peeve here? Please, please, don't let your MC's consistent internal response be snarkiness: someone puts her down and she has a scathingly sarcastic reaction in her narration, or to her friends, or in her diary. Sarcasm is fun to write, but it seems an easy- and often overdone- way to make a MC interesting.)

That's what I have so far. It's helped me to concentrate on what Elsbeth, my MC, is doing, rather than what she isn't. It keeps (I hope you agree, Slushies!) her an active, engaging character, even if she isn't saying much.

And please, I'd be happy to read your thoughts on how to keep a quiet character interesting. I need all the help I can get.


Merry Monteleone said...

Hi There,

I think you're right - in some of these instances it's not so much that the character is weak, but that they're learning to navigate their world while still being true to their own sensibilities. Not everyone is loud or boisterous or outgoing. And sometimes a quiet choice is more profound than a loud reaction.

My response at Nathan's wasn't so much about books I've seen in print, but a stumbling block I've seen in crit a number of time. The writing is solid, the story is excellent - but sometimes in building the character arc, letting them learn and grow and become able for the task can make the agent/editor view the character as 'unlikable' or not sympathetic enough.

Sometimes it's really just a matter of subjective taste - but it's also hard for the writer to see because we know these characters so intimately. It's one of the reasons I think it's so important to have great beta readers and crit partners who will give honest feedback - they can see what I miss.

I think a lot of times, the character isn't intended to be unsympathetic. It's like when you know a person really well and love them - you're willing to overlook negative traits and characteristics you wouldn't overlook in someone you just met.

Great article, and thanks for the link.

T. Anne said...

I like my character's much like myself quiet and full of contemplation. I don't think their 'quiet' is always a weakness but it gives room for growth.

Love the name of your blog!

Sarah said...

Merry, so glad you came by! I'm at work, so I'll have to swing by later tonight, but you're absolutely right. So many of the mistakes I made with my character were because I knew Elsbeth so well. I needed Steph (fellow Slushie)to tell me she didn't care about her at all 2 years ago to realize I'd not written her well.

Sarah said...

T. Anne, I don't think quiet is a weakness, either. For me, though, my quiet characters could be perceived as weak or boring because I wrote them poorly. I adore what isn't said or expressed, but the reader's got to get that info somehow. They sure weren't getting that in my first drafts.

Pretty basic for most writers, but it took me a while to figure out how to begin doing that- especially in my first two chapters. This was just a bunch of the thoughts I've been thunking along those lines after Merry's comment.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Sarah,

I haven't read for you, so obviously I can't say what's not coming across in yours... in mine I notice that when I'm not getting it across it's because I fall back too much on narrative... so instead of the reader experiencing the story with or through my mc, they're seeing it at a distance through my narration...

EA posted up my first few pages of Raskin's Wings at Anonamati a few weeks ago, and it's a prime example of what I mean... I kind of took a step back where that character was involved and worked more with descriptive language and narration than really showing.

I went back through the whole ms. after that crit, and it's not as prevalent with my actual mc (we meet him in chapter 2, Raskin is more like a secondary mc or the main character of the fairies).. I wonder if I was doing that to avoid head hopping, because most of the novel is close pov to Benny (the boy)

Anyway, there are many ways a writer can accidentally take their readers out of the story... or make the emotion a bit inaccessible... that's just one of the ways I've been doing. Knowing's half the battle, though :-) on to revisions.

Lisa said...

This is a fascinating line of conversation. While my mc isn't exactly quiet, she has a lively interior world. Sometimes, I get too carried away with action to convey it properly.

It takes so much time to show what a character is thinking and feeling. When I'm in a flow of writing, I often just say, "she felt..." or "she thought..." intending to go back and fix it later.

And Merry, I also find that when my story isn't working, it's probably because I've once again felt the need to explain. My last submission of chapters 7 and 8 had exactly that problem. As Steph pointed out, I should drop the reader into the middle of a scene instead of leading up with a paragraph of "they were doing this and had been doing this" and suchlike.

But it's a fine balance because sometimes it can be more powerful to tell the reader, "She was completely alone," rather than take 3 sentences to show it. Sometimes.

Steph has mentioned in critiques that she doesn't feel she knows Annabel. We're on chapter 8 here, so that worries me a bit. I wonder if in early chapters I concentrated to much on action and showing what Annabel actually does without directly going into her thoughts and feelings, my idea being that the actions reveal the interior world. But maybe not enough.

Or maybe her character has changed as I've progressed in this first draft, and the Annabel of earlier chapters is not the same girl we see in the pirate cave.

I don't know. I'm on too much of a forward roll to go back and look at the moment, but I hope I can figure it out when I start revising.

Like Merry, I'm pretty sure I know what I need to do, so I'm halfway there already.

Sarah said...

Merry and Lisa- such good points about narration vs. scene. I know I've been doing the 'felt' and 'thought' in some of my first rounds of new material. I think with Elsbeth (my MC) I really do need to focus on taking the reader into Elsbeth's perspective.

Gotta run!

Merry Monteleone said...


Oh my, I've had the same issues... there is such a fine balance, because when I try to lean all the way over to showing everything, keeping everything active, it's manic and it changes my voice... and then, for me, I notice when I get that writer insecure thing going on, I over-write... it sounds like I don't trust my reader to keep track of characters or plot... really it's that I don't trust myself to convey it properly.

On a side note, girl in a pirate cave? I'm intrigued!

So glad I wandered over. I'll have to blogroll you guys.

Michelle said...

Helping each other find the balance is what we do best. And really, Lisa, Steph saying she didn't know Annabel was a very "Steph" comment. She's all about the inner dialog the way I'm about needing to be grounded in place and "see" the setting, and Alison needs the physical movement of characters to work and be clear from the written description. Knowing each of us will focus on something different is exactly why it's good to have several different readers.