I recently rewatched the 1995 Persuasion (Starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds) because it’s a beautifully acted movie. I don’t have have Netflix, but even if I did I will not touch the 2022 version with a 30,000 foot pole. I recommend watching the YouTube videos that roast the new one, but I’m mentioning the old movie to make a point about our shy and quiet characters.
My disliking of the new version is not simply because it’s new and updated (that doesn’t bother me so much) but because somebody takes a classic character and rewrites them. It’s been happening for more than a decade. The movie Mansfield Park from 1999 decided to take a classic romance novel written by Jane Austin and turn it into a feminist/ anti-slavery film (that topic is fine but that’s not the point of the original book) with barely a snippet remaining of the original material. Once again, a shy and humble character was turned into something she isn’t, because apparently Hollywood writers can’t make their own characters so they need to cut and paste classic literature people and play with them like paper dolls.
My anger on those matters aside, we need to ask, what happened to our quiet characters? When we are writing our characters in our stories, we have a lot of things to focus on – development, backstories, looks, motivations, and so much more. I think a big thing we focus on are the lines our characters say. It’s already good practice to make sure that the right characters have the right lines, and to make sure the lines make sense. But what about our characters that don’t speak as much?
Over the years I’ve had many stories I’ve started. Some of them I’ve merged with newer works, and others are set aside because I’ll come back to them later. But in a lot of my works, I have a character who is there but seldom speaks. While some people may argue that there is no point, I beg to differ. If you make the character interesting, talented, and describe them in detail, do they really need interesting lines? What if what someone doesn’t say is so much more important than anything they could say?
Our meek, humble and shy ladies from Austin sometimes need to stay silent, if only because they later learn how to speak up. In that case, their quietness is part of their development. Anne in Persuasion learns how to speak up and defend herself. If your character is learning, make sure you are consistent and that they don’t speak out of character before they are ready.
However, there is something to be said for characters who just barely or never speak. Sometimes this can be comedic, like Harpo from the Marx Brothers movies, though that is more difficult to capture with writing. I would argue it’s much easier to describe them with an implication that they are in pain. Lastly, they can also just be someone who only talks when there is something useful to say. My novel The Wounded Healers has the protagonist Kess fall in love with a woman who rarely speaks. She accomplishes a lot of things (including rescuing him) but none of her actions require a single word. No funny one-liners, no flirtatious lines, and no cheeky strong-female confidence boosting quips. Her presence is so much more than her words. Why does she do this? Simply because she only speaks when she feels it necessary.
If you are inclined to write a character who doesn’t often speak, please do it. I want to see more of these types. I’ve almost given up on Hollywood, but if we have more books with quiet men and women who we still come to know and love despite a lack of lines, then I think the creative worlds in fiction may just become a little bit more powerful. And if Hollywood gets a hold of your work, you’d better make sure they keep it consistent. If they had their way, our quiet characters would be given lines, therefore killing their own purposes. We need more quiet in our books, so maybe someday that will make its way to the films.
I couldn’t agree more. Personally I need more quiet in my life and I live alone. I am acutely aware of the noise in this world that seems to be encroaching on my place in the world. When I’m watching a nice quiet romantic movie, I’m jolted by the commercial with twice the decibels of volume, which sometimes even makes me jump sometimes. Then I go out into that scary place that they call “The Outside World,” and I’m bombarded with music coming from cars going by with bass up so high that I can feel vibrating in my bones. Then you have the car behind you at a red light who honks his or her horn as soon as the light turns green. I grew up in NYC for crying out loud, and I am still bothered by loud noises. Maybe I’m just getting older and less tolerant.
Thank you for your book reminding me of how important quiet can truly be.