Quieter Protagonists: 3 Ways to Help Them Steal the Stage

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

March 20, 2018 by ANGELA ACKERMAN

While readers love to see larger-than-life characters with passion, take-charge attitudes, and heaps of boldness and daring, not every protagonist wears an extrovert skin. In fact, looking at real-life demographics for a second, I think there’s a lot more people on the quieter side than not. Some of us are introverted, others, on the shy side. People can also be deep thinkers or natural observers. And of course many struggle with doubt and insecurity, and extroverted or not, it’s enough to keep them from actively choosing the spotlight.

Whatever the reason is, it is worth remembering that if we’re to mirror the real world in our fiction, those loud, brash characters are the exception, not the rule. Besides, if all our story cast members have big, BIG personalities it will create a tug-of-war for the reader’s attention, and the story can suffer as a result. We need quieter characters, too…especially because quiet DOESN’T mean boring.

Working with a quiet character? Here's how to make sure they stand out to readers.

The trick with quieter characters is finding a way for them to stand out. If you have a shy woman or a calm and careful man, each will be naturally more reserved with their actions and choices. They likely think before they act, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. They may be predictable, and if we aren’t careful, they might become forgettable. This is death if your quieter character happens to be the protagonist, so let’s look at three ways to make sure they command the stage.

Use Contrast

Contrast is a great way to bring the spotlight back to your quiet character. Pair them against a flashy cast, like a friend who is bold yet arrogant, or a parent who is feisty and reckless. A teacher who abrasive and opportunistic, or an erratic, superstitious boss. When the people around your quiet hero are creating a lot of drama, then your protagonist can become an interesting and insightful counterweight.

To make this work, ensure that something about them (a trait, a talent, an interest or hobby, knowledge they have, or something else) is special and connected to the current problem or what’s at stake. For example, imagine half a dozen superficial, attention-jockeying teens on a school hiking trip who become separated from the larger group. Between blaming each other for getting lost and hysterics about starving or being mauled by a bear, no one in this group is capable of solving the problem at hand. But imagine that one of the kids assigned to this group is our protagonist, a logical thinker who spends his time Geo-caching for fun. Who is suddenly going to be the focus as he’s the best suited to navigating everyone back to the campsite?

Offer Readers Something Unexpected

People can be meek and mild, but in books, a too-quiet introvert will quickly bore the reader. Imagine a schoolgirl, her perfectly combed hair, her steps careful as she watches for cracks on the sidewalk. You can see her, can’t you, clutching books to her chest, unassuming, polite, so different from the hormonal teen freak show going on around her. She does her homework. Raises her hand enough to stay off the teacher’s radar. Her schoolmates don’t know her name and find her utterly forgettable…and readers will too if we leave her in this Plain Jane purgatory.

Writing a quiet, introverted character? Here's how they can stand out to readers.

Yet, if we give her something unexpected, the very details that made her fade will bring her to life. Maybe we give her a secret, or allude to a desire of hers that is so much bigger than her blah exterior.

We could also reveal something about her that will make a reader’s breath catch.

What if those books she clutches are holding something in place…an injured bird found on the way to school? But she’s not holding it there to protect it. Instead, each twitch, jerk, and flutter floods her body with exhilaration, so much so that she squeezes harder, smothering away its cries as claws dig through her sweater, until finally, all movement stops.

Her carefully controlled demeanor takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Create Reader Empathy Using Deep POV

When characters don’t have noticeably extroverted traits and behaviors, they don’t usually express themselves outwardly to the same degree as those that do. However, one thing every introvert has is big, deep thoughts. They might not be showing their emotion as actively as other characters do but you can bet they are thinking, reflecting, and FEELING.

Pulling the reader inside your quiet protagonist is a great way to show their raw emotions as a scene plays out. Deep POV means instead of watching everything from a distance, readers see through the eyes of the protagonist and experience the visceral quality of their emotions. (This in turn lends more weight to any outward expressions because their body language is layered with the context of their thoughts.)

Deep POV means what a character sees and senses becomes a shared emotional experience for the reader. And in heightened emotional moments, they often find themselves remembering their own life experiences when they themselves felt something similar to what the character is feeling. These echoes mean that deep POV is a powerful tool for creating closeness and that all-important empathy bond. Click here to download our One Stop for Writers checklist on Deep POV.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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