The Silent Character
The muse has thrown an awesome plot your way. You both get excited. The plot dictates the character. Like people, their life experiences (aka the plot) shape their personalities. However, every so often a character doesn’t “speak” even though they are the star of an awesome plot. These silent characters are the mind’s eyes’ dolls forced to journey through the plot. There is no spark. No character, just a vessel for the plot. Interest dries up. If these plot vessels are forced into the stories, they will be flat and the reader will know. We have all read stories where the characters are cardboard cutouts. The plot is great, the concept fascinating, but the characters are meh. Characters, especially the protagonist, anchor the reader to the story. The reader’s connection to the characters lingers after a book is read.
Forcing a Character
Forcing a character is when a plot is developed and the protagonist(s) doesn’t speak to the writer. Rather than being an entity, forced characters are plot vessels that run through the motions of the story. The character might be fine in theory, with a personal story arc and realistic traits, but the magic isn’t there. There is a disconnect between writer and character. Creating a story is a balancing act between plot and characters. When the balancing tilts too far to the plot side, organic character development suffers. The writer’s logical brain is dictating who the character is. For me, most of the time the plot comes first and the characters fall into place. However, last year, the WIP stalled. The backstory I dirty drafted with no major issue, it flows and feels organic… but the current day story was the most difficult storyline I have ever worked on. Months of going around in circles, trying to mould together story threads, and forcing the two protagonists to speak. Story pieces are like a jigsaw puzzle and snap together to form a coherent story… except when they don’t. Change one piece out, it changes several pieces and their placement in the plot. The gelling wasn’t happening. There was no writer’s intuition to rely on because the story was built too much on intellect rather than gut feeling. Passion stalled. But hey stick with it to finish it — as the gurus advise. So I did and wasted months on the story merry-go-round.
Identifying a Talking Character
Talking characters make their presence known. They are the ones that take over those scenes that pop into your head, usually at inconvenient moments like in the shower or on the toilet. They offer story details, big and small. When they appear on the page, the words come fast with little effort. These characters don’t need “forcing” and are fun to play with.
Ninetynine times out of a hundred, a writer will recognise a talking character. They are the characters the muse is drawn to. The protagonist should always be a talking character (the point of this blog post). Side characters often want their stories told. Resist the urge to switch the main character, unless there is a solid reason. They tempt like the devil — a form of a shiny new story syndrome.
At What Point Should Characters Be Tossed (recasted)?
This is a million-dollar question. I fell into the golden writing rule to stick with what you start. I have way too many half-baked projects, so my determination is akin to a dog with a bone. There is no cut-and-dry answer. In hindsight, and always in hindsight, the problem was with the driving characters. A love story. The starting point was a reversed “The Little Mermaid”. While I uncovered the plot and expanded the series’ world-building, the lovers never spoke as characters. They are fine well rounded characters with character arcs and unique traits, but they have been mute. If a character goes quiet after being demanding attention, that’s a different challenge; the creative spark is buried and needs lighting. But if a character never speaks at some point, a character recast is necessary.
Over time, a writer learns with practice what their writing processes and limits are. Next time, if a story doesn’t unpack with ease and characters are mute, it’s time for a recast. Especially if there are side characters jumping up and down wanting attention like a kid on a sugar high… And scenes playing like a movie — that’s where the magic is.
The 2021 novel project has been recast. While working on the dirty draft for the backstory, the antagonist spoke clearly and Lucy, a side character, stole the show. Reworking the novel with Lucy as the star has been surprisingly smooth, most story elements recycled or revamped. Of course, there are changes to accommodate a new protagonist, but I am not hitting my head against a brick wall. Two weeks later and I am drafting. Sooo much easier when you’re working with The Muse and not against. The writer’s intuition returned. Waayy more fun working with a character I connect with.
I think the second issue the project struggled with was the merging of too many ideas. Originally, the novel was going to be a standalone set in The ImmorTales series world, but at some point, it hit me, with a bit of jigging that the novel could be the book 1 I’ve been searching for. My established story ideas are mid-series dramas or prequels. March 2022, I took an indy publishing course, Youtuber Sarra Cannon’s “Publish and Thrive”. With marketing in mind, I knew the leading characters needed to be recast. Lucy can carry a series story arc. The lovers are a one-book deal. Who knew marketing could help with creative choices?
Exercise: The First Person Snip
Sometimes a character just needs a little attention and space to speak. For every book in The ImmorTales series I have worked on (there have been a few), I’ve written what I call First Person Snips. Every major player, not just protagonists, gets a snip. Snips are a stream of consciousness. These mini writings are always in the first person because the first person gives me the opportunity to discover how they think and what they want to say. A bit like a secret diary. New story details are uncovered and the voice of some characters is surprising. Lucy stood out by having the most to say with very strong opinions. She’s a talker. In comparison, the former novel stars had little to say and offered no new story details. Below is an example of the first snip I did featuring Lucy.
Beauty… The most prized asset a woman has. Many are pretty or appealing, but then there are the pearls. The Helens. Desire of all desires. Men want to consume and women hate out of envy; Wouldn’t it be great to be her? To bring men to their knees?
A double-edged sword, sweetheart. Are you prepared to fall on the blade? No, isn’t an answer. My will is squashed, as is any female’s. The only difference is I am hunted more. If I am lucky, men will block one another, but the victor always wants something in return.
Beauty is a curse. One I would gladly trade. Or would I? I don’t know any different. All I want is to be seen for me. Not a trophy.
There are two ways I create a snip;
- Stream of Consciousness Writing: ask the character a question, story-related or personal, and write whatever comes to mind. No editing along the way.
- Oracle Cards/Tarot Cards: I like assigning each character an oracle card as a jumping-off point. Tarot and oracle cards are great prompt tools because they are psychological in nature, however knowledge of how to read cards in the traditional sense helps but really isn’t required. Write whatever the image on evokes, with the character in mind. The deck’s guidebook can offer more details if stuck. (More on using decks for writing in a future post)