Wednesday, March 30

What Are Your Characters Not Saying?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was working on a fun scene yesterday, with two characters having a conversation. Each character’s goal was to get information out of the other without giving away what they knew. They had just met, didn’t trust each other one whit, but were the only clues to help both of them solve a mystery they both need to solve.

While they had particular plot reasons for keeping quiet, this verbal dance is a technique that can benefit a variety of scenes, because it adds tension and conflict, and can create mystery. People hold back information all the time. We don’t say what we think, we keep secrets, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves, and all for a myriad of reasons both good and bad.

One aspect of this is subtext, but this is a little more deliberate. Characters know what they’re not saying, and the whole point is to hold information back in some way.

(Here’s more on writing subtext)

Take a peek at your scenes, especially any that you feel lack tension, conflict, or mystery. Ask:

Is anyone not being honest?

This is different from out and out lying, because we can hold back information or cast it in a different light to make ourselves look better and still tell the truth. Maybe the character isn’t being honest about how they feel, or what they think, or might even be avoiding a topic so they don’t have to lie.

(Here’s more on what your characters are ashamed of)

Is anyone lying?

Then there are the actual liars. They aren’t telling the truth or give false information on purpose. Motives here can range from deceitful to well-meaning, but the reasons behind the lie are deliberate. Some lies are meant to hurt, others meant to help.

Is anyone holding back information that can help (or hurt) another character?

This can also have a wide range of motives behind it, from trying to help someone by not revealing information that will hurt them, to keeping a secret that would benefit them greatly. The information could be fairly benign—feuding siblings might keep quiet to get the other in trouble with Mom—or have major consequences.

(Here’s more on why anyone should help the protagonist)

Is anyone afraid of saying the wrong thing?

Fear keeps many a person quiet when they ought to speak. Maybe they fear reprisal, or fear hurting someone, or maybe they fear what might happen if that information got out. They might even be afraid to face whatever it is they don’t want to talk about.

(Here’s more on making your characters uncomfortable)

Is anyone trying to gain more information than they give?

A staple in any mystery, and we often find one character trying to pump another for information. Detectives interview suspects, sleuths question witnesses, lovers question friends—if there’s a relationship of any type, odds are someone is trying to find out something.

(Here’s more on how characters answer questions)

Is anyone wrong?

People assume all the time, and often assume wrong. Misjudging a situation might cause a person to hold back and not be honest, thinking they were doing the right thing by staying quiet. Or someone might (wrongly) think what they have to say has no value and stay quiet. Or they might think speaking up is the worst idea possible.

Half the fun of reading a story is trying to figure out all the mysteries and puzzles of the plot. The more our characters hold information back, the harder it will be for readers (and other characters) to solve those puzzles.

While we certainly don’t want to hold back vital information and trick readers (that’s just mean), not letting every character be completely forthcoming is a great way to add conflict and tension to a scene, and keep readers guessing what will happen next.

Do you have any characters who are holding back? Are there any scenes that would be better if someone did?
Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I like this. I write mysteries so it's quite often that a character is holding back, a cop withholds information he/she deems vital to the case lest the criminal realize they've been made, an antagonist lies, a witness doesn't tell all she knows for fear of retribution or having the lens of law enforcement focused on them. It's fun in mystery, that's for sure.

    Right now, I'm working on a romance and I find this to be an entirely different process that revolves more around not divulging feelings rather than not divulging information.

    1. Oo, that would be a slightly different aspect of it. It would be interesting to see the differences. Let me know how that works out for you and if you have to approach it from another angle.

  2. My historical novel is getting closer and closer to being ready. Your topic brought back a scene in which the widow of the murdered man confronted the murderers. I am not sure you want us to contribute text to this forum, but I hope it is OK for me to offer this brief example of how I handled what my character did not say:

    “Long ago there was a man like you...” She could not finish the sentence and began again, this time without delivering a sermon.

    My first draft had the sermon, but my editor/sister suggested that this was no place for one.

    1. Good instincts. By not saying anything, you also leave the mystery about what she'd sermonize about open.

  3. A question I should have asked you on Wednesday: How do you know so much about psychology? :) Another post to save. Carol

    1. Two of my good friends are psychologists (in some fashion). We talk a lot about human nature :) My husband and I also enjoy discussing why people do what they do. Not sure how much my character insights apply in the real work, but they work for fiction, lol.

  4. Argh--all of my characters are lying about something or another. I actually have a chart of who knows what when, and who is engaged in actively hiding something (vs who is just intensely private). And then there's the stuff they are all trying to figure out, but some figure it parts out and don't share for their own reasons, and some share with some but not others...

    The assuming thing is huge, and hard to convey. Several of my characters make assumptions about the others that I have to get across without info-dumps about history, etc.

    Charts. I recommend charts.

    1. Charts are awesome. Lists, spreadsheets, note cards. Whatever to takes to keep it all straight :)