It’s publication week for Peter Newman’s excellent The Vagrant (out 23rd April) and he’s shared his experience of writing a silent character with us.
When I first started writing The Vagrant, I knew that I wanted my protagonist to be silent and I also knew that I didn’t want to share his thoughts with the reader. I liked the purity of it, to have a character that is judged on what he does rather than what he says or thinks. We are often given the keys to a character’s personality through their thoughts. I wanted the Vagrant to be a mystery that the reader could gradually solve as they read the book, coming to their own conclusions about him based solely on his actions.
However, most books have a hefty amount of page space devoted to dialogue and inner monologue and it was really challenging working without those things to fall back on. In the early parts of the book the Vagrant’s principle companions are a baby and a goat, so there isn’t a great deal of idle chatter. But there are still meaningful relationships between them, conveyed through the Vagrant’s occasional battles with the goat or his managing of the baby, and the moments of fun they sometimes manage to steal from the demon-infested wasteland.
Working in this way helped me to appreciate the significance of silence. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Harold Pinter and the way his scripts would use: ‘…’ to denote a short pause, ‘(pause)’ to denote a longer pause, and ‘(silence)’ to suggest a more significant gap in the dialogue. Or the films of Akira Kurosawa where whole stories are told in a single lingering shot on a character’s eyes. In The Vagrant, I tried to create a sense of silence and then fill it with atmosphere and mood. It forced me to think a lot about how I would convey a character’s state of mind in a more understated manner.
It also made me focus on action, on what the Vagrant actually does. The movements of his eyes and eyebrows, his smile or lack of it, the clenching of a fist, the tilt of his head and so on. Where another character might argue, or express their feelings, the Vagrant is limited to simple gestures of yes, no or something non-committal.
I could have used other methods to circumvent that (sign language for example) but I wanted a character without a voice of any kind, with all the frustrations and difficulties that brings.
It also means that the Vagrant’s choices are often presented without context. If he decides to help someone or abandon them, the reader is left to guess why. An interesting effect of this is that I’ve had him described in radically different ways by test readers. One saw him as a gentle, caring figure, another as a cold, tough warrior.
I have my own view of course but to give it would defeat the point. I’d much rather leave it for you to decide.
Order your copy of The Vagrant here.