Characters without character

In the endless rewrite (and general dithering) that occupies my creative self these recent weeks (and which accounts for the sparsity of posts here — what have I to speak of?), I was reflecting on a couple of the characters in my novel who are “characterless.”

One of my minor characters plays an important part in the plot, though his role might have been dealt with in a couple of other ways. What’s significant is that although he has a name, he has not one word of spoken dialog in more than 110,000 words of the story. He interacts with my protagonist several times, but all of his interaction is narrated; he is never presented in the plot in a way where he needs to speak a word.

Another character, who plays a key role early in the story and then is referred to several times later, doesn’t have a name. I call her “the woman with the old fashioned face.” (That description is suited to the role she has.) She has some dialog, but I never give her a name.

This doesn’t bother me. In fact, I like it a lot, and I would enjoy it if I ran across it in someone else’s fiction. (Perhaps I already have. Perhaps that’s where I got the idea.) It feels playful and intriguing. It seems like intentional writing, like the kind of thing a writer would do deliberately, rather than achieve through oversight or poor editing.

Both of these characterless characters grew organically. I never set out to present them with these “qualities,” but once I saw the pattern in what I had written (by about the halfway point) I decided to keep it that way. So far my reader has not mentioned it as a problem.

Yes, I could give a name to the woman with the old fashioned face, but it would add absolutely nothing to the story other than to possibly settle the anxiety of a few conventional readers. And I could give my speechless character some dialog but again, nothing would be gained.

I suppose some writing “instructor” would tell me I am sinning grievously, but then he or she would probably object to the split infinitive in the preceding paragraph.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Humble efforts, Sleep of Reason

3 Comments on “Characters without character”

  1. Pete Says:

    Those characters aren’t necessarily “characterless.” They can have plenty of character, and be fully realized, without speaking or without a name. After all, there have been many instances of good books with realistic secondary characters and even protagonists who never speak (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter comes to mind) or remain unnamed. To me, “characterless” negatively implies one- or two-dimensional characters who serve more as symbols than actual human beings.

  2. Brian Keaney Says:

    ‘The woman with the old fashioned face’ is a terrific description.

  3. paullamb Says:

    Pete – Yes, I agree. I was more or less calling them “characterless” as an attention getter.
    Brian – Thank you. You’re always so kind.


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