Key-word Cavalry: Writing Quiet Characters

For those of you that missed last week, the last three Wednesdays of every month will be taken up by Key-Word Cavalry, my attempt to answer the writing related key-words that lead people to my blog but that I don’t think have received due attention from me.

So today’s key-phrase: Writing Quiet Characters.

For all my life, I’ve had two specific types of characters that I loved most. First would be the bad-ass. The second would be the Quiet One.

Both are awesome for different reasons, but in every movie with a Quiet Character, I’ve always been intrigued by one. After all. Their silence implies something. Something mysterious. Something awesome. And we want to know.

There’s a depth to them, since they’re the guys who have to put up with living in their noisier (and often stupider) companion’s shadow. Usually the noisy one would fail to function if the Quiet One were to be removed from the equasion.

Makes for some excellent entertainment. So of course, when I started writing Doorways I was excited to know that one of my main characters is a Quiet One.

Little did I know what a pain he could be to write.

See, in the movies, we’re  constantly aware of his presence because we see him. Those moments that the camera focuses on him can be some of the most significant ones in the entire film.

In books, the reader can’t see him. Not unless they’re constantly reminded he’s there. Of course, I had the luck that his Noisy One needs and resents his presence at the same time. So if your quiet guy isn’t going to be the only main character, or if his noisy friend isn’t motivated to stay aware of him, I urge you to find a noisier replacement.

Still, the heart wants what the heart wants, so here are a few things to remember when writing a Quiet Character. (From own experience, so by all means, experiment. I’d love to know how it went.)

1) The character can never be completely quiet. Complete silence does not translate well to writing, unless we get to hear the character’s thoughts all the time.
2) There has to be a reason for his being there. Otherwise, the other characters in your cast will have to drag him along through the whole story. And as we all know, we cut the dragging bits out of our writing.
3) Strength. Presence. Conflict. Tension. He can maybe have two of these four characteristics missing. Any more, and we have ourselves a persona non grata. Someone who the readers will skip over when they encounter him. And it’s easy. Because he doesn’t have all that much to read about.
4) Something’s gotta give at some point. We the readers have to see him come into his own at some point. He has to get his voice, his moment.
5) For heaven’s sake. Let us see his reactions at some point. Don’t have him mutely follow everything he’s been told every time. Or let him, but let him be angry if it’s something he doesn’t want to do. He’s quiet, not emotionless or stupid.

Do you have a Quiet One in your story? How do you keep him from vanishing between the furniture?

I close this with the image of my favorite Quiet One. Yes he talks, but only because his subordinates don’t understand sign language. 

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23 thoughts on “Key-word Cavalry: Writing Quiet Characters

  1. I have a character in one of my WIPS that doesn't talk for the first 1/3 of the book. I also have a few shorts (that should be dusted off and re-worked) that have silent characters. Something intriguing about them.

    There's a movie coming out this year called RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. One of the characters is The Sandman, and he (supposedly) doesn't speak the entire animated film.

    The best one I can think of, though, was Kurt Russell in the movie SOLDIER. I think he had 22 lines the entire 90 minute movie. Spectacularly well done, and well played.

  2. Great post! I have a quiet character in several of my books. It's easier when they are the main character because you can share their thoughts. But when they're secondary characters it's a bit harder, which is why they are often “the smart one” or the “tough one” who kicks butt–think Elliot in Leverage.

  3. I have several quiet characters in different books. In one, she was a side character, but I think she made a powerful impact in some parts, with just reactions or a few well-chosen words. In another book, I have a quiet character, but it's from his POV, so he doesn't seem as quiet. 😉

  4. When I write quiet mysterious characters I usually try to blend them into the background a little at first. I describe their actions as i would describe the scenery and they might seem like they only exist for the noisier characters to bounce their own thoughts off of. They'll be the cook or the loyal friend or the gardener or someone who is just always there but eventually they will start to show a lot of their own character and maybe even turn out to be a villain. They can be hard to write but also fun 🙂

  5. Ooooooooo. Very nice. I never would have thought of those things until I actually tried to write a quiet character. Good to have this as a reference! LOVE that you closed with Gibbs. Love.

  6. Great points, Misha. I'm a fan of Gibbs. I agree, you can't have a silent character in writing. You need to show interaction which would be challenging if they didn't speak at all.

  7. I love Gibbs. A brilliant quiet character.

    I do have a fairly quiet character. He doesn't really have a moment, but he's consistent and another characters needs him around. The dynamics of the characters brings him to life.

  8. I LOVE this article. I am having so much trouble with this concept. I have only one main character, at least for the last three quarters of my story. So far I'm writing in first person present tense, because I thought that would be needed. If my mc is quiet, then when she narrates the story, the readers get to see everything she's not saying out-loud. She is the quiet and the noisy duo in one. She is quiet out of not knowing what to say, fear, anger, pride, and then when she get's too angry or prideful, her mouth runs away with her and gets her in a good amount of trouble. I guess I was looking up how to write shy characters because, I still struggle when with know when she would speak and when she wouldn't, and so much has been going on physically around her, she hasn't had time to internalize much anymore anyway. MAN this is hard.

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