Quieter Protagonists: 3 Ways to Help Them Steal the Stage

While readers love to see larger-than-life characters with passion, take-charge attitudes, and heaps of boldness and daring, not every protagonist wears an extrovert skin. In fact, looking at real-life demographics for a second, I think there’s a lot more people on the quieter side than not. Some of us are introverted, others, on the shy side. People can also be deep thinkers or natural observers. And of course many struggle with doubt and insecurity, and extroverted or not, it’s enough to keep them from actively choosing the spotlight.

Whatever the reason is, it is worth remembering that if we’re to mirror the real world in our fiction, those loud, brash characters are the exception, not the rule. Besides, if all our story cast members have big, BIG personalities it will create a tug-of-war for the reader’s attention, and the story can suffer as a result. We need quieter characters, too…especially because quiet DOESN’T mean boring.

Working with a quiet character? Here's how to make sure they stand out to readers.

The trick with quieter characters is finding a way for them to stand out. If you have a shy woman or a calm and careful man, each will be naturally more reserved with their actions and choices. They likely think before they act, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. They may be predictable, and if we aren’t careful, they might become forgettable. This is death if your quieter character happens to be the protagonist, so let’s look at three ways to make sure they command the stage.

Use Contrast

Contrast is a great way to bring the spotlight back to your quiet character. Pair them against a flashy cast, like a friend who is bold yet arrogant, or a parent who is feisty and reckless. A teacher who abrasive and opportunistic, or an erratic, superstitious boss. When the people around your quiet hero are creating a lot of drama, then your protagonist can become an interesting and insightful counterweight.

To make this work, ensure that something about them (a trait, a talent, an interest or hobby, knowledge they have, or something else) is special and connected to the current problem or what’s at stake. For example, imagine half a dozen superficial, attention-jockeying teens on a school hiking trip who become separated from the larger group. Between blaming each other for getting lost and hysterics about starving or being mauled by a bear, no one in this group is capable of solving the problem at hand. But imagine that one of the kids assigned to this group is our protagonist, a logical thinker who spends his time Geo-caching for fun. Who is suddenly going to be the focus as he’s the best suited to navigating everyone back to the campsite?

Offer Readers Something Unexpected

People can be meek and mild, but in books, a too-quiet introvert will quickly bore the reader. Imagine a schoolgirl, her perfectly combed hair, her steps careful as she watches for cracks on the sidewalk. You can see her, can’t you, clutching books to her chest, unassuming, polite, so different from the hormonal teen freak show going on around her. She does her homework. Raises her hand enough to stay off the teacher’s radar. Her schoolmates don’t know her name and find her utterly forgettable…and readers will too if we leave her in this Plain Jane purgatory.

Writing a quiet, introverted character? Here's how they can stand out to readers.

Yet, if we give her something unexpected, the very details that made her fade will bring her to life. Maybe we give her a secret, or allude to a desire of hers that is so much bigger than her blah exterior.

We could also reveal something about her that will make a reader’s breath catch.

What if those books she clutches are holding something in place…an injured bird found on the way to school? But she’s not holding it there to protect it. Instead, each twitch, jerk, and flutter floods her body with exhilaration, so much so that she squeezes harder, smothering away its cries as claws dig through her sweater, until finally, all movement stops.

Her carefully controlled demeanor takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Create Reader Empathy Using Deep POV

When characters don’t have noticeably extroverted traits and behaviors, they don’t usually express themselves outwardly to the same degree as those that do. However, one thing every introvert has is big, deep thoughts. They might not be showing their emotion as actively as other characters do but you can bet they are thinking, reflecting, and FEELING.

Pulling the reader inside your quiet protagonist is a great way to show their raw emotions as a scene plays out. Deep POV means instead of watching everything from a distance, readers see through the eyes of the protagonist and experience the visceral quality of their emotions. (This in turn lends more weight to any outward expressions because their body language is layered with the context of their thoughts.)

Deep POV means what a character sees and senses becomes a shared emotional experience for the reader. And in heightened emotional moments, they often find themselves remembering their own life experiences when they themselves felt something similar to what the character is feeling. These echoes mean that deep POV is a powerful tool for creating closeness and that all-important empathy bond. Click here to download our One Stop for Writers checklist on Deep POV.

Do you have a quiet character? How do you make sure they capture your reader’s heart? Let me know in the comments!

Need more help? Check out Resident Writing Coach September Fawkes‘ great post on Making Secondary Characters Stand Out.

If you are building your character from the ground up and need to make sure they have a interesting and compelling personality, please take a peek at the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Flaws, Character Traits, Characters, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Experiments, One Stop For Writers, Point of View, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Quieter Protagonists: 3 Ways to Help Them Steal the Stage

  1. Tuttle N. Texas says:

    This is a topic near/dear to my villainous heart. I’m all loud-mouth and bombast but I’m currently writing a quiet man. These tips are MONEY. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Chris Eboch says:

    I was a quiet and shy child, and it frustrates me that girl MCs in children’s books all seem to all be outgoing tomboys. I wrote my historical fantasy The Genie’s Gift specifically to feature a shy character. She journeys to find the genie who can give her the gift of sweet speech, providing confidence and charisma. Since she’s largely alone on her journey except for the wild characters she meets, it keeps the focus on her. Spoiler, she gains enough confidence from her experiences to realize she doesn’t need the gift after all.

    • Sounds like a good story line 🙂 Quiet doesn’t mean boring, does it? When they have a compelling goal and bring readers in close, that’s so much better than the “Hulk smash” types in my mind!

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  5. Good article. It’s something I have to work on with my WIP–the main character is overshadowed by her two friends (who each have their own books), and she is totally wrapped up in rescuing stray animals. She’s going to have to come out of her shell to get support and funding for an animal shelter, so while she’ll remain quiet at heart, she’ll have a growth arc to pull her out of her comfort zone.

    BTW, it’s “geo caching” not “cashing. Because you’re looking for the cache. 🙂

    • Thanks – I missed that typo! Fixed now. 🙂

      I think that inner story and really showing the WHY behind what they want most is so important with quieter characters. Readers really need to connect with their mission and why it is so meaningful and then they can better watch for subtle shifts and actions, understanding what they really represent, and the powerful emotions fueling them even when they may not be as expressive or volatile as someone else. Instead they are doing things their own way, risking and taking action in ways that fit who they are.

  6. I’m an extreme introvert with some highly sensitive components. So I tend to write introverts. Extroverts are totally beyond my comprehension for why they do things and the way they behave. Even the process of trying to get under their skin in a fictional setting is mentally exhausting for me. They’ll be secondary characters, but I’ve never written one as a POV character and probably never will.

    I wrote two books with a very quiet protagonist as the lead. He’s one of my favorite characters. He’s a very strong character, just goes about it in a quiet way. The woman he fell in love with is his opposite in many ways, and they’re a good pairing.

    I love quietly strong heroes, both as a reader and a writer. They’re always the type you’ll find in my books.

  7. Karin says:

    Great tips! I’ve been struggling with a quiet character I can’t seem to make pop off the page. I’ve been thinking of cutting her part, but maybe I’ll keep trying! She’s nurturing and non-confrontational, so I think I have to put her in situations where her skills are useful instead of situations where all she can do is observe. Somehow!

  8. :Donna says:

    As always—-aMAzing info!!! 😀 😀 😀 <3

  9. Great topic to explore! My main character is fairly quiet by nature but brave. She speaks up when she needs to – like on the first page (!) when she objects to her father’s remarriage. She makes up for her quieter nature with bucket loads of determination and smarts. Pairing my character with a more extrovert one (or two!) has helped. Foils too, help – they remind the reader of her through natural comparison, And plenty of deep POV as you mentioned – that makes a huge difference.

    She also has lots of struggles along the way – both inner and external – a quest to go on in each story, and a magical Gift which she has to learn how to master. I’ve also worked hard on making her the driver of the story – in early drafts she was quite passive – now her actions/thoughts propels the story.

    When I first started writing this series nine years ago, the strong (alpha male) type female protagonists were all the rage – I liked them, too, but I just couldn’t write them – fortunately there seems to be more room for all types of females now. 🙂

    • I think we have grown a lot over the last ten readers and come to realize that strength comes in many forms. It’s terrific, I think, because there’s so much more room to explore! 🙂

  10. Angela says:

    This was one of the most helpful articles yet – so glad I found your website – it’s a gold mine! Thanks 🙂

  11. Jarm says:

    I sure do! And I’m rethinking ways I can make shy Federico stand out against the bully . . . Thanks for this tip, Angela!

  12. Talia says:

    I have a lot of quiet characters! I’m a very quiet person, so it’s easy to write them. In one of my books, my protagonist is a shy, quiet introvert, but he’s living in a constant situation where he’s on the run from the bad guys, so he lives a life of adventure. He also has a past he’s clearly keeping secret from all the other characters, and my goal was to keep the reader itching to find out what it is.
    Thanks for the post! 🙂

  13. Mary Kate says:

    Thank you for this. It’s definitely something I struggle with. I write YA, and as I was the most painfully shy teenager, it was hard for me to find characters to relate to in my books — they ALL seemed to be larger than life — which is why I strive to write protagonists that are more like how I was. But it’s hard making a timid, passive person interesting! I think here, growth is really important — she can start off passive and timid but she definitely can’t stay that way. What you said about a useful skill no one else has is something I incorporate as well. And while I can’t see turning my protagonists into secret psychopaths (though that’s a great and chilling example) there’s a lot here I can use with one of my current WIPs. Thank you!

    • I agree so much! That inner growth, and identifying with how the quiet character sees life…these are critical. This is why i love the “mirroring the real world” technique when it comes to showing that inner landscape of a character. If readers can see themselves in the character and identify with their struggles, they become invested in what happens because they care and want the character to succeed. 🙂

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