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.