As I worked on Apprentice Cat, I’ve began noticing something interesting. In each scene there are the characters that are talking, acting, thinking or just hanging around, but they are there. I point them out as being there. Then there are characters who are there, but not there. These are what I’ve come to call “silent characters.”
Silent, but not unnoticed…
Silent characters are those that are there in every scene, making the protagonist choose one pathway over another simply because he or she knows that is what the silent character would want them to do. Sometimes a character chooses to not do something because the silent character would want that character to do it. Regardless, the outcome is based on the silent character’s influence even though that character is not physically in the scene.
In Apprentice Cat the main character, Toby, is faced with decision after decision. (What character isn’t in a good story?) What he chooses to do or not do are often heavily influenced by what his mother would want him to choose. After the initial chapters in which Toby’s mother is introduced, she is seldom physically in the important scenes that move the story along. However, she continues to silently shape Toby’s decisions, making her a very important character.
Another character that largely impacts Toby’s decisions is the Big Boss Troublemaker, as Kristen Lamb calls the antagonist. This character appears only in certain scenes and isn’t always easily identifiable as the one causing the plot’s problem, yet this character clearly affects decisions Toby must make.
The not-so-silent problem child…
It’s fascinating to watch a silent character mold a scene. It’s also sometimes troublesome because you may need your protagonist to choose path A, but the pressure your silent character puts on your protag may force him to choose path Z. That can be a good thing, leading to better scenes and higher tension, or it can be a bad thing, in which case you’ll have to reign in that silent character or give your protag a better reason to push that dominant character’s wishes aside. Jami Gold gives some great advice on this in her post How Do You Deal with Difficult Characters?.
How do you use your silent characters to motivate your protagonist? How much control do you have over your characters?
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