Agents and editors want characters that jump off the page… but what if your character prefers to stay home with a book?
Juliet, the protagonist of my middle grade mystery Hot Ticket, is clearly an extrovert. She can’t stand that there is a mysterious ticket dispenser in John Jay Jr. High that is giving everybody except her a hot ticket. She wants to be the center of attention — and if not the center, then she wants to receive some attention. Even if it’s negative (in the form of a shame ticket.)
But the protagonist of my last mentorship project, which is a middle grade superhero adventure, doesn’t seek the limelight like Juliet did. He’s got spunk, but I knew he wasn’t like Juliet at all. He figures out how to use his unique powers to defeat his nemesis — but he doesn’t want the rest of the class to know he’s a Super. In fact, it is vital that he stay hidden.
As I fleshed out the plot and minor characters, I still couldn’t fully figure out who Peter, my protagonist, was. I tried flipping through books that describe personality archetypes (i.e. “The Leader,” “The Helper,” etc.) but nothing really fit. I flipped through some craft books on character, but that didn’t really shed any light on Peter either. Peter is funny, but he’s not an attention seeker. His favorite activities tend to be creative — and most artists like to work alone.
It wasn’t until my mentor, Julie Ham, said to relax and have fun with it — to try having Peter interact with others in more scenes to bring out his personality — that I realized what word encapsulated Peter.
But can you have a dynamic, fully-formed, “jump off the page” introverted character?
Quiet doesn’t mean passive.
In the beginning of my mentorship, Julie recommended Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things.
Alvin Ho has a distinct personality — even though (or perhaps because of) the fact that he is so fearful of everything that he can’t speak at school. It’s how he handles his fears that makes him interesting. After all, not every character would create a Personal Disaster Kit to survive second grade.
Alvin might fear new social interaction, but we also see him blossom where he’s comfortable: at home, and around his brother. These are opportunities to see another (perhaps more active) side of Alvin, and helps us to relate even if he’s afraid of things that we, as readers, are not.
Quiet doesn’t mean loner.
Introverts need room to reflect and do their critical thinking, but then they come out of their ‘down time’ with a plan of attack. Peter has a creative outlet that lets him regroup by himself, even if he doesn’t know that that’s what he’s doing.
But he’s not alone. He’s interwoven into the fabric of the classroom – even if he’s not, like Hot Ticket’s Juliet, trying to raise himself a few levels on the popularity ladder. He has a best-friend, a potential Super nemesis, and a Regular school playground bully nemesis. And like a majority of introverts, he’s most comfortable with his best friend Rowdy, and on-guard when talking to the new kid in class.
In fact, one of the biggest emotional problems that my protagonist has derives from his introverted tendencies. Like most introverts, he truly values his fewer but deeper friendships — and his inability to tell Rowdy that he is Super provides a constant strain on their relationship and Peter himself.
Quiet doesn’t mean boring.
Quiet characters can still be funny. There is a ton of humor in Alvin Ho, and hopefully there is a ton of humor in my mentorship novel.
Peter’s parents have a punny, slapstick type of humor. There is situational humor in an absurd plot. And while Peter does not always say funny, witty things, he frequently thinks them. Even if Peter’s best-friend isn’t in on the joke, the reader is.
Still having trouble with character? Start with this character checklist and this discussion of passive characters in query letters.
Who are your favorite “quiet” literary characters?