My friend Liam recently posted about the things characters leave unsaid on his blog, This Page Intentionally Left Blank. It's a really fascinating topic, so I've written a follow-up post.
People leave things unsaid all the time. Greg never tells Harriet he loves her.
George never finds the courage to thank Charles for believing in his
nutty dreams. Sandra tries to be a people pleaser and never tells Patty
that Patty's whining drives her crazy. Mike never tells his
wife that her cooking really is as terrible as she thinks it is. These
things left unsaid, while not outright lies, will still influence who a
character is and how they react to their situation.
lots of reasons for leaving things unsaid. A lack of courage. A fear
that saying it will change things forever. A desire not to be seen as
someone who complains. To illustrate I'm going to expound on those examples.
we have Will. Will works for a mob boss. Will has no interest in making
the boss mad and paying for it in blood. However, one day Will sees
that there might be a better way of interrogating prisoners. He wants to
bring this up to the mob boss, but he doesn't want to challenge the
boss lest the boss see the suggestion as uppity and disrespectful. As a
result, Will will be even more aware of how the boss reacts to Will's
actions. He'll be thinking about ways he could make the suggestion that
won't provoke violence. He'll be having nightmares about what will
happen if it did. He may be trying to get on the boss's good side even
more than usual.
Second, we have Roland. Roland is in love
with Maria, whom he has been friends with for years. He wants to tell
her he loves her, but is
afraid that if he admits his love for her, it'll ruin their friendship.
As a result, romantic stories and such make him a little uncomfortable,
because they remind him of the secret he keeps locked up. Going
somewhere alone with her makes him nervous. Maria and her friends notice these things.
Third, Claudia works for a
man who loses his temper a lot. He's a nice guy, but he has no emotional
self control. Claudia sees that some things could go a lot smoother if
he just learned to keep a cool head. She wants to say something, but she
also wants to be the good employee, and fears that talking to him would
ignite his temper and get her fired. So, as the weeks pass and she
doesn't say anything, she starts to get frustrated. Things could be so
much better if he just made a few small adjustments. She works hard to
control her temper, why can't he do the same? Her frustration keeps
building and building, but she never says anything because she wants to
keep her job. It stresses her out, so she starts taking kickboxing
classes to burn off her frustration.
See how this works?
some cases, leaving something unsaid may be directly related to
bottling up emotions, which could result in an emotional explosion. For
example, perhaps one day Claudia's boss does something that really ticks
her off, and she can't control her frustration anymore and so she
starts yelling and screaming at him.
Also, as Liam
pointed out in his post, if the other characters see how one character
is acting but don't know what that character isn't saying, they may make
assumptions that aren't true, or they may have things they themselves aren't saying, and this will affect how the characters
So, let's look at those examples from the other side.
The mob boss knows something's up with Will. Will's been acting weird. He doesn't want to say anything because he wants to see if he can figure out what's going on. But he has a growing suspicion that Will is an undercover cop who's trying to expose a great big drug trade that's about to go down. (In reality, Will is not a cop and has no idea about the drug trade.) So boss starts to plan how to deal with this.
Maria is also in love with Roland, and she's just as afraid of ruining their friendship as he is. But she sees his discomfort with all things romantic, and thinks it's because he's figured out she's in love with him, and he isn't in love with her. This depresses her.
Claudia's boss gets really annoyed at stupid people, and thinks the best way to deal with them is to let them know how stupid they are and how their stupidity causes problems. He also knows that he's screwed up with his temper before, and he's incredibly grateful to Claudia for keeping a cool head when he couldn't. But he can't tell her that because if he did he'd be admitting he has anger management issues and he's afraid that would make him look just as stupid as the people who trigger his temper.
And because character is inextricably intertwined with plot, all of this affects plot too.
The mob boss decides to make a deal with the police by holding Will hostage and saying he'll hand over Will if the cops back off, still laboring under the misapprehension that Will is a cop. If the cops don't back off, Will dies. When the big day of the drug trade dawns and the cops are there with guns pointed, the mob boss pitches his deal and the cops say "He's not one of ours." The mob boss is confused, Will is freaking out, and the police are trying to figure out what's going on.
Roland and Maria grow apart over the course of a couple months, both of them too wrapped up in their own interpretation of the situation to realize there's more to it than they think. Then Roland is in a car crash. He gets pretty banged up, but lives. Maria rushes to the hospital in tears. When she gets there, Roland is asleep. She starts sobbing, freaked out by the fact that she nearly lost him when they weren't on the best of terms and when she hadn't confessed her true feelings. She starts blubbering despite the fact that he's still sleeping, and he wakes up in time to hear her say "I love you."
Claudia and her boss argue. Her frustration erupts in a volcano of her opinions of his behavior, and the resulting ash cloud ignites his temper, this time as a defense mechanism (and because it's his default emotion when he gets upset.) But in this outburst of hasty words, Claudia mentions something about how her boss nearly screwed up a certain business transaction. As her boss takes a breath to shout something back at her, he realizes that what she says doesn't make sense with what he knows, and that if it went down the way she said it did (as angry as he is, he still trusts her) the other people involved in that transaction are the ones who have been skimming off company profits. When they confront the thieves, Claudia's newly acquired kickboxing skills come in very handy.
Pretty cool, huh? There are a whole bunch of ways one can play with this, both in regard to character and plot. Obviously it may not apply to every character in every story (I actually had a hard time finding something my MC leaves unsaid), but it can be lots of fun in the stories where it works.
Now that you've read this post, go read Liam's. He talks about several other cool things I didn't touch on here, like how stereotypes and how characters want to be seen fits into all of this. It's pretty sweet.
What are your thoughts on this concept?