Impartial Observers

Sometimes a character will be a loner or an intellectual, and they will observe the action of the story from a distance, without getting too involved. We all know these types of wallflowers and, as writers, I’m guessing some of you fit this description perfectly. That’s what writers and shy kids do, they observe. While this is perfect in real life, it doesn’t work well for fiction. That’s not to say that your characters all need to be gregarious and outgoing, and you shouldn’t do away with characters who take pleasure in simply looking at the world.

But your character can’t simply be a video camera or a set of eyes. They must participate in the novel and in the action, because the reader really only learns about them when they reach out and do something. They can think all the want, or talk all they want, but it’s not until they interact with the world that you’ve created that it goes from telling to showing. The other concern with this type of character is that observers sometimes relay what’s in front of them in a dry, emotionless way. This is what I mean by my “video camera” comment, above. A piece of technology records the action without adding any of its own stamp (unless it’s Instagram and has all those nifty filters!). A character who observes but doesn’t comment or react is about as useless as a nondescript point-and-shoot.

Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) is your best friend here. So if a character is not taking action, give them plenty of internal reaction to keep the reader connected to and invested in their experience. Still waters should run deep. Same goes for if you’re writing an aloof or mysterious POV–it’s very easy for readers who feel distanced from their protagonist to click off. You want to avoid this at all costs.

So if you want to do a shy character who doesn’t interact much, that is your creative choice, but you should be extra careful to make them a) a participant, not just an observer, and b) a colorful narrator of the story, not just a video camera. Force them into the action and, when they’re hanging back and looking, give them real narrative presence that injects events with voice and character and emotion. Otherwise, your wallflower could be just any old person, relaying a story in a detached, cold, and clinical way. Nobody wants that. So keep these things in mind when working with this type of character.

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  1. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Mansfield Park! The main character–Fanny Price–is nothing more than an observer for at least the first half of the book. I think that’s why so many readers struggle with this particular Jane Austen.

    Towards the end she takes part in the action, and the pace picks up because of it. Fanny has unspoken opinions and interiority, but it is subtle and not delivered with today’s standards of voice and emotion. But it’s Jane Austen, so of course I still love it.

    An example of how this is done well is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. The main character is a quiet observer, but full of inner turmoil.

  2. Cara M.’s avatar

    :D I have never met an intellectual who watched things happen without getting way involved. #real intellectuals

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