The quiet moments rant. I have to admit I was looking forward to this one, because the majority of the stories I’ve read lately (with the exception of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) seem to rely on battles and big fights between the characters exclusively.
1) Give a quiet character the weight of quiet moments.
Quiet characters are rare in fantasy. Most characters—not only the protagonists but also the important secondary ones—are of the sort that cry “glittering tears,” don’t get angry but “fly into rages,” and have “eyes sparkling with amusement.” The villain may seem unemotional, but that’s only until the hero defeats him, at which point he cracks. The closest the author often gets is a quiet assassin who tries to kill the hero, prompting, of course, another loud moment.
Let’s try some subtlety in the characterization, hmmm? Fantasy could use it, if only to make up for the overabundance on the opposite side.
A quiet character is not necessarily unemotional, but his gestures, facial expressions, words, and actions won’t be as extravagant as the others’ are. He may never get angry, or the protagonist may be unable to tell if he’s feeling anger or another emotion. (I’ve known several people like that. I was much warier of pissing them off than I was someone who showed visible signs of rage). He may appear to be the kind of stolid walking muscle that the hero requires in a sidekick, and then come out with something sly or wise or wicked or stinging that the hero would never have dreamed he could say.
This requires subtle work in and of itself, since otherwise the expression will either seem contrived or used just to bolster the hero’s failing self-confidence (see point 2). But it can be done. And in quiet moments is the place that your quiet character will shine the most. Besides, for it to remain a quiet moment, it’s probably essential that such a character take the weight, because it wouldn’t be in-character for the blustering barbarian to get subtly angry when he’s been raging all story.
If you do like to imagine everyone getting upset eventually, consider that old maxim: “Beware the fury of a patient man.” It probably takes a lot for your quiet character to lose his or her temper. But when they do, I bet the result will be a lot more horrendous to everyone involved than the typical screaming match or bout of adolescent petulance.
2) Make some quiet moments that are not all about the hero.
Usually, they are, since the majority of those moments that aren’t battles, the hero being honored, or the hero being defiant towards his enemies are moments when the hero collapses, gets sick, weeps, says he can’t go on, or something similar. Then the other characters comfort him. The wise old mentor offers words of wisdom. The quiet character, if there is one, gets used to tell some kind of rambling parable that will eventually wind up guiding the hero in the desired direction. The hero spies on someone from the bush, such as the girl he likes bathing (you’d think that naked flesh pebbled from cold water is the sexiest thing any fantasy character’s ever seen), and derives “the strength to go on.” All I can say is that I don’t think that’s strength.
I’d be willing to accept that the author is writing the story from the hero’s eyes. But why do all the other characters, when they should reasonably have their own concerns and personalities and lives, bend towards the hero and do things only for his sake?
Include quiet moments that rectify this. Show that the character who’s been snappish was really hiding a wound, and don’t allow the hero to make it about himself by his moaning that he should have noticed. Use it, instead, to demonstrate that the wounded person really is more stoic than the hero thought she was, and perhaps has an extreme dislike of being taken care of. Those are traits that it’s harder to make about the hero.
If the hero has a rival—can it at least not be a rival in a love triangle?—show this rival doing something the hero can’t do, is never going to match, and, moreover, isn’t done in competition with the hero. Usually, if Generic Spunky Kid spies on someone practicing with his sword, he knows how to do those sword movements in about three days. Lose Generic Spunky Kid in admiration, instead. Make him forget his own problems, which, yes, does include how sexy he thinks the sword-fighter is, and briefly move the story into someone else’s space. It would help greatly to make the hero seem to be surrounded by people instead of shadows.
3) Place the quiet moments judiciously throughout the story.
Pacing isn’t just a matter of how fast the story travels, though given how many fantasy stories rush through to the end, it’s still a lesson that some authors need to work on. It’s also a matter of how the scenes fall in the finished story. And since fantasies, more than many other genres, use multiple viewpoints and head-hopping to keep track of an epic unfolding plot, that fall varies from one part of the story to the next.
On the opposite end of the scale from those rushed fantasies—and in any case, they tend to rush mostly near the high points—are those fantasies where a long summer afternoon in class moves more swiftly. You’ve read at least one, block the memories though you might. That book where thirty-page conversation sequences, or lectures where the wise old mentor talked to the heroes about their destiny, were the norm, not the exception. That other one where the heroes spent at least 300 of the 500 pages doddering around cities that served to introduce nothing to the plot. And the always-infamous ones where the author spends the beginning building up a place and characters you’ll never see again, in the name of telling you about the hero’s childhood. The very worst fantasies have slow beginnings and rushed endings, I think. The author tries to paint a complete picture and then animate it, and it doesn’t work that way. A character shouldn’t begin to live and then stop developing.
Scatter the quiet moments in between the battles, and the bickering scenes (must they be there? I could drag them behind the barn and kill them for you, if you like), and the scenes where the hero hears the backstory, and the breathless chases by the enemy. If a story is nothing but quiet moments, the author’s focus really has to be there; it has to be a quiet story. Instead, what often happens is that the author doesn’t care about the quiet moments. She just thinks they’re necessary, or she’s too lazy to find a subtler means of interweaving backstory and history and the magic system and whatever else the reader needs to know. Her focus is ahead, on the next battle, and the quiet moments suffer and drag as a result.
You have to care about them, really.
4) Introduce the gentler versions of the grand emotions.
Let’s return to the glittering tears and blustering rages and sparkling eyes. They’re there. Fine. But even naturally emotional heroes should have moments when they feel melancholy and irritation and humor instead of torment and fury and wild joy.
What about introducing a quiet scene where the hero watches a sunset and feels melancholy about it? He doesn’t need to philosophize about how it’s connected to his quest and how his people will fall into sunset if he doesn’t find the Amulet of Shadows. In fact, such rather defeats the purpose, and enslaves the lesser sadness to the greater. Let him just stare, and feel sad, and not really know why. Do we always know why? Probably not. And, hey, you get to use your descriptive skills! Even color names!
Genuine irritation is something that doesn’t often show up in fantasy. The teenage hero angsts, but it’s never about anything demonstrably minor; it’s always about saving the world. Bickering is used exclusively as a means of sexual tension. (And yes, I know there are real-life couples who bicker. There are others who don’t. And, at this point, when every other couple in fantasy relates that way, I’d like to see some different mode of interaction. There could even be people who like each other from the beginning, gasp!) Irritation is a good excuse to have people do stupid things, particularly if they’re in a campsite or village they have reason to think is safe. They can stomp off to nurse their sulk, and get taken by the quiet assassin, who is, let us hope, not one of those fools who will release the hero because “he liked the thrill of the chase.”
Humor is also damn rare. Its two stand-ins are groan-worthy toilet humor and puns, and the “wit” that authors like to have their heroes display before the Dark Lord. (Psst. Authors. You wouldn’t call something wit that made you sick to your stomach and was about as funny as cockroaches falling on your face, would you? Of course not. Now stop calling it that.) Try having the characters just laugh together. Perhaps they think a ghost is following them, circle back to confront it, and have it just turn out to be a pale horse that they lost some time ago. Perhaps you have a character who can tell actual jokes. Perhaps you have a character who sketches others in revealing poses and places the drawings “innocently” where they can find them. This can be marvelous character-building.
At least as much of life is lived in between the grand emotions as in them, I think. And in fantasy, there are plenty of times when the characters aren’t fleeing or arguing or fighting or making love, such as when they’re setting up camp or waiting in an army camp or traveling. Show us how they live in the moments between.
5) The quiet moments don’t have to be introspective.
This is something authors believe far too often. The problem is, a lot of them can’t write introspection that goes somewhere. The character just sits there and thinks thoughts she’s already thought, information the reader is already privy to, and concerns that the reader knows will be solved in the predictable way. Then someone interrupts her after two or five or ten pages, and she jumps up and runs away to solve the next crisis. The introspection hasn’t calmed her or made her come up with a plan, which, silly me, I always thought was part of the point of thinking about things. It’s provided a clot of sugary cream that the reader has to struggle to swallow when she digests your story. These are scenes that I may not skim, the way that I do clothing descriptions, but I often don’t remember that much about them when they’re done. I don’t have to. I’ve heard it all before.
So, do other things with the quiet moments! I’ve already mentioned watching things and using them to build character interaction. Other options:
- Show the hero planning. I actually find this more impressive than the author flinging deus ex machina-wannabes at me in the penultimate scene before the climax. Instead of hastily saying, “Oh, yes, the hero has a superweapon, and this is how it works!” two pages before the weapon has to work, show him building the superweapon, tinkering with the superweapon, planning for the superweapon.
- Show off some aspect of your world. One of my favorite quiet moments that I ever wrote was the hero and heroine (if by that you mean male and female protagonist, at least) walking outside their city while he sang to her in another language. She hadn’t known that he’d been traveling among a people who lived southwest of the city for long enough to learn the language, and until that point, neither did the reader, or I. She then wanted him to translate the song, he refused, and it led back into the larger of the two subplots, which dealt with their marital arguments and who exactly was in control of them.
- Detail the consequences of a loud moment. Heroes often spend no time healing or recovering in a fantasy novel, due to a) those damn magical healers that apparently breed like rabbits and b) the author being reluctant to detail any healing or recovery at all that she can’t think of a way to tie into a romance plot. But the companion whom the protagonist isn’t going to fall in love with, yet has to spend time nursing him or her back to health, can be a valuable viewpoint character. If nothing else, it provides a more graceful excuse for the writer to switch to a different viewpoint. Can hardly do much with the hero/ine when said hero/ine’s unconscious or half-dead or asleep all the time.
- Go for the subtle tension. I haven’t read a whole lot of fantasies where the hero spends time in a prison cell or a hiding space without something happening. Someone comes to torture him, he breaks out, the enemies find them within about three pages, the author just skips everything and tells me they’ve been there for six days, etc. Yet I think it can be done; fantasy authors are simply unpracticed in the subtle. The sequence I enjoyed the most in Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber is the one where the main character spends four years in prison. It’s not even as long as the battle sequences—though of course that doesn’t mean as much as it otherwise would; the book isn’t very long in itself, and moves like a freight train—but it manages to make it seem as if four years really had passed. And it’s told in first-person, too, and without sinking into angst.
Music next, it looks like.