Since my guiding theme this time is more of a, well, theme, rather than object or persona or type of behavior, this rant is more scattered than usual.
1) Give characters good reasons to keep secrets.
These are manifold and easy to think up. Perhaps telling the truth would hurt someone else. Perhaps the secret is (at least seemingly) harmless, a white lie. Perhaps the character would ordinarily tell it without prompting, but the other person’s been nosy and annoyed her, so she keeps silent out of spite. Perhaps the secret is very personal and the person who wants to know it is too new an acquaintance to merit the secret-keeper’s trust yet.
Reasons that’s I’m really fucking tired of: When the secret serves a Big Misunderstanding, a stupid plot twist that would be cured by two minutes of honest and open conversation. When the characters keep their love secret from their Designated Love Interests because they’re certain that the Designated Love Interests don’t love them in return (did you see conclusive proof, you dolt? Most of the time, no. They just know it, somehow). When the character isn’t certain that someone would believe her (I’m sorry, but if I believed—as a lot of these fantasy characters do—that silence would mean letting someone die or get hurt, I would choose possible public embarrassment instead. Characters who keep silent under those circumstances are more concerned about their own fucking pride than another person’s survival. Not to mention what will happen later if the other person finds out that this character knew and didn’t tell them, and that most of the secret-keepers have no reason to think that the other person will disbelieve them).
The more important a secret is to the plot, the clearer and more careful the reasoning behind keeping silence has to be—the author’s, if not the character’s. There have been books that snapped my disbelief because I had no idea at all why the main character kept silent, other than that without that silence, the author couldn’t have floated her idiotic plot.
2) Give characters good reasons to tell secrets.
I would actually prefer more scenes where characters chose to tell secrets of their own free will, rather than being coerced into it (just as I would like to read more romances where characters don’t act like blushing and giggling and stammering high school students trying to figure out if someone likes-likes them, and were mature enough to ask each other about secrets straight out). But if the writer has set up silence as important to the plot, then the breaking of the silence must also be important.
Why? Perhaps the secret-keeper has been freed of whatever conditions imposed the silence in the first place. Perhaps she’s finally gotten her act and her courage together. Perhaps he’s decided that this person, whom he’s learned to value slowly over the course of the book, now deserves to know. Perhaps the secret-keeper has lost patience with the games that he himself was playing, or telling the secret is a way to seize control of her interaction with someone else.
There. See? Several ways that don’t depend on someone cornering the secret-keeper and forcing it out of him, that imply trust going at least one way and an active will and the honesty and courage that so many fantasy authors value in their heroes. Why so many protagonists keep quiet, especially about silly things, until they no longer have a choice baffles me. Part of it is lack of point 1; many times they could have told this secret at the beginning of the story and it not only would not have harmed the plot, it would have made it better. (See point 3). And part of it is that I don’t really see much of a future for a friendship or romance which depends on one partner doing all the work of communication, while the other sits mute until the other one picks him or her up and shatters the shell like an eagle dropping a turtle.
If you really feel that you have to write a story where one character clings grimly to his silence until someone else breaks it, then please, keep in mind what I said about stubborn characters: that they’re often much less attractive, when considered in the context of the whole story, than they are at first blush.
3) Show me the fireworks.
So the heroine is a werewolf, and she keeps it secret because—because everyone hates and persecutes werewolves, yeah, that will do. (No matter that everyone has used that in every werewolf story ever. Who wants to be original? No werewolf is allowed to be happy, ever, or have a somewhat normal life. That is a Rule.) And then the hero, who’s traveling with her, watches her disappear on full moon nights and finds wolf tracks around the campfire and notices that she’s come back with a wound in the side the day after a wolf was shot. He confronts her. She resists. Then she tells him, about 2/3 of the way through the book. The hero fumes over it for a while, then abruptly forgives her and decides that it doesn’t matter that she’s a werewolf when he sees how cruel the hunters are.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Also, STUPID.
Why? Well, there are some reasons that are particular to this case—the secret is too obvious to any reader who knows the slightest thing about werewolf lore, and if we’ve gotten the heroine’s POV, then we already know this supposedly impossible-to-guess mystery—but there’s another thing, something I would think more authors would have noted long ago: instead of focusing on the hero’s reaction and the heroine’s reaction to the revelation and what it does to their relationship, the author focuses on the telling of the secret instead.
I have considered this asleep. I have considered this waking. I have considered this sitting, and standing, and walking, and after I’ve read a really stupid story. I have considered this standing on my head.
It still makes no fucking sense.
A revelation doesn’t matter if we don’t get to see what it does to the characters, or if it makes them act like stock figures instead of continuations of the people they’ve been so far. I don’t care that the heroine’s a werewolf, next to that. I don’t care how pretty the language in the revelation scene is, next to that. I don’t care how often or how carefully the author has foreshadowed the secret, next to that.
Show what happens afterward. There is your tension, your drama, your accusations of lying and mistrust, your change in the characters. Supposedly, authors build up secrets and play their cards close to their chests for a long time because they want to show what will happen to their characters when the revelation detonates. Instead, what often happens is that the author turns aside and look out of the book at the readers. The characters’ reactions are stock, or abbreviated, or entirely brushed aside, as in the example I gave. What’s important is not the change in the hero or heroine or how they learn to relate after that, but that they eventually fall in love and learn the moral lesson that the author wants them to learn. The revelation scene is there for the reader’s benefit. Isn’t the author clever? Isn’t she wonderful? Admire her, damn you!
No. No granting of cleverness or wonder without fireworks. I wouldn’t at all care about this secret if the characters didn’t. And you went to all this work, including, probably, averted gazes and knowing smiles, to foreshadow the characters’ reaction. Show it.
I think it would be much better if more ‘Great Big Secrets’ were deployed earlier in their respective stories. Then the author would have to figure out what the characters would do in the wake of that revelation, instead of dropping it and then saying, “Oops, no time to be detailed and wonderful; I only have 20,000 words to go until the end!”
4) Silence is sometimes more poignant than any words.
There are fantasy stories that begin with echoes of this, but most eventually abandon it. No matter how much the protagonist might decide to keep his love a secret because telling it would ruin his beloved’s life, he winds up telling her anyway, and she loves him back, and everything is happily ever after. And the telling is most often hilariously cheesy.
Let’s see what silence on the matter of love does across years and time. Or let’s see what happens when the protagonist starts brooding on the fact that he’s kept his love secret for noble reasons, and then gets enamored of his own nobility, and turns into someone not very nice because of it (people impressed with their own nobility make me bare my teeth on instinct). Or let’s see the heroine suspecting it but never asking him about it because, well, it really would ruin her life, and she values her own happiness more than the chance to let him babble at her. There are all sorts of interesting directions that a story can go when the wall never is breached. (If an author manages to confound reader expectations because they keep waiting for the declaration of love and it never comes, that is also a small but pleasurable benefit).
Another way to use silence is as a variant on the telling scene. When the moment comes that the hero finally achieves his goal, or the couple finally unites, or the heroine finally knows herself well enough to utterly reject the temptation to use her magic for evil, then he or they or she don’t have to make big speeches. Really. They don’t have to drift into purple language and horrendous endearments. A stare or a hard embrace or a realization in silence is also affecting.
5) Silence= death.
Here’s another side of silence, especially in political and brutal fantasy stories. Someone who just shuts up and scurries away from a nasty situation could endanger more lives than his own. Someone of an oppressed group who accepts what other people say about her but never voices an opinion of her own could lose more than just the opportunity to have people stare at her. Someone who hesitates in speaking because of petty outside considerations could lose sight of the much broader picture that she stands to affect.
This is brought up—sometimes, mostly in pale shadows, when the character has gone through a traumatic experience. If a character is concealing past physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, then the moment when someone else learns about it is usually important, at least to the plot and at least to the person who learns of it.
But even then, the greatest focus is on the nasty and dehumanizing aspects of the abuse itself, not the reactions of those who hear about it or speak of it, and not on what it means that the silence is shattering. Having waded through pages and pages and pages of descriptions of abuse, I would like to see authors also tackle those other pieces of the puzzle. They’re not necessarily going to be less dark; someone stunned by the abuse isn’t going to send your story careening off in an inappropriate direction. (A stock reaction, like an instant swearing of vengeance, might be). And their absence is troubling. It reminds me of horror writers who go for the gross-out at the expense of more subtle psychological terror.
Invoking silence, as well as pain and torture, as a theme in brutal, political, and abuse-driven fantasies would work wonders. If nothing else, it would point towards a road of healing, which most fantasies skip (we’re just told that everyone is all right at the end of the story, or that they will be; we don’t get to see how they arrive there).
6) Not all breaking of the silence has to be direct.
Just a brief comment, really, because I’ve recently been reading intrigue-driven and mystery-driven fantasies and realized something odd.
Other than Zelazny, not a whole lot of authors actually let their characters lie. When confronted, the villains tell the truth, even the minor ones, even the ones who would have the most to lose should the protagonist learn the truth. It’s odd. Even complicated and thorny court intrigue functions more by silence—people concealing things from each other—rather than the breaking of silence with plausible-sounding half-truths.
How freakin’ weird.
Don’t overuse silence as a weapon in political fantasy. There may come a moment when the villain, or a minor slimy character, or the protagonist himself, has no choice but to talk—in fact, a moment like that comes in most fantasy novels. But that doesn’t mean that he has to give up the whole, unvarnished, hurtful truth. And the closer to an enemy that the person confronting him is and the fiercer the consequences of the truth are, the more I would expect him to lie, and wriggle, and dance around the truth with enough skill to convince the questioner.
The usual reason that authors give for not having characters lie is that it’s too hard to remember webs of lies. Yet these are characters who have no trouble remembering whole conversations word-for-word to recount to other people weeks later, or instructions for a complicated magical ritual that they read only once. Unless a poor memory is established as a prior part of the character, don’t always rely on this one.
That…bit quite a lot harder than I expected it to. I suppose that I’ve just read too many books that had stupid silences oiling an incredibly stupid plot.