Why Writing an Introverted Character is Hard, and Why You Must Do it Anyway

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JTom   headshot1 Why Writing an Introverted Character is Hard, and Why You Must Do it AnywayThe following is a guest post from Jessica Tom, author of the forthcoming novel, DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU EAT. Here she writes about the challenge of creating an introverted protagonist. Jessica’s manuscript is currently under revision and will be submitted to editors very soon. Jessica describes herself as a non-anxious introvert. Follow her book’s progress at www.jessicatom.com and on Twitter at @jessica_tom.

In so many books, we follow the adventurer, the warrior, the stranger who brings trouble to town. It is easy to write a page-turner about these action-oriented people. Writing a page-turner with an introverted main character is much more difficult.

A couple years ago I started writing a novel titled DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU EAT, a culinary coming-of-age novel about an 18-year old girl named Tia who secretly writes the New York Times restaurant review because the real critic has lost his sense of taste.

The concept is easy to understand, but as with so many things, it’s all in the execution. Tia is an introvert. But like real-life introverts, Tia was prone to misunderstanding. When I shopped the manuscript to agents, I got these sorts of responses:

“We felt that Tia came across as whiny at times, especially with respect to Emerald, who seems to have done nothing wrong or that warrants Tia’s intense dislike of her.”

“She frequently gets angry out of nowhere, and we thought she was unnecessarily ruthless with Carey.”

“Why hasn’t she made any friends in her classes? Doesn’t she have friends from high school she might call for advice, even if they’re at different colleges?”

Take my word for it — I would never write a whiny, unlikable, navel-gazing main character — yuck! — yet that’s how people are often primed to think of the quiet, slightly anxious people in the room, fictional or otherwise. Now, you can blame the reader for the misinterpretation, or perhaps make the main character all sunshine and giggles. Or, you can do the more difficult thing: give a voice to the introvert and fight that bias.

Here’s the book’s premise: Tia lives in public as a college freshman. She is navigating her first love, coping with her sexy roommate, and trying to please her parents. But in her secret life, she is directing the NYC dining world. She gets access to a glamorous world and sees her words in the world’s most influential newspaper. She is afraid of success, of losing her love, of failing, of judgment. Writing the New York Times restaurant review under secrecy keeps her safe from criticism — until it doesn’t.

The emotional core of the book is how Tia reconciles her introversion with her ambition and personal relationships. This is a subtle and hard thing to articulate, especially given the uphill battle introverts must climb in the realm of public perception.

But for every Huck Finn, Odysseus, and Harry Potter, video game-like characters who thrust the book through action, there are many introverted characters. Hamlet, Holden Caulfield, Mrs. Dalloway. These are the characters you relate to most. I may never catch a killer, win a war, save a country. But I endure little humiliations each day. Everyday I am learning about my weaknesses. And everyday I am living my greatest drama — learning how to overcome what Trollope calls the “lacerations on the human spirit.”

The best way to turn an introverted character into someone you want to spend 300+ pages with is by baring his or her soul in a way that might feel uncomfortable at first. But do that you must. You must prove she is not whiny, but sensitive and pained. She isn’t angry, but scared. She isn’t pathetic and lonely… but happier and more productive alone.

If you put in the effort to really understand your introverted character, then the payoff can be enormous. The introverted mind can be a thrilling minefield. Her choices can be life or death. And her feelings can be so deeply felt that the reader gets chills just thinking about her story.

This is what I seek to achieve in my book, a 320-page novel starring an introverted main character. I did find an agent, and am looking forward to sharing Tia’s story with the world.


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12 Comments

  1. Jane London on 10.10.2011 at 08:26 (Reply)

    One of the best introverted characters that I can think of is Lisbeth Salander, in the Stieg Larsson trilogy. Of course, she was considered a bit of an oddball, by the other characters.

  2. Carol on 10.10.2011 at 10:18 (Reply)

    I look forward to reading Tia’s story when the book comes out!

  3. Christy on 10.10.2011 at 13:13 (Reply)

    I’m looking forward to reading this book now. It sounds lovely. Especially the food-writing-in-secret part.
    I think the title of this article is a bit misleading, though. I came expecting a stern talking-to rather than a lovely description of the writer’s struggles with others’ perceptions of her character. I don’t have any trouble writing introverted characters. It’s the extraverted characters I have problems with, when I forget that deep down they’re not just like me and I have to remember to make their motivations different. I have a feeling my extraverted characters read as more unconvincing than my introverted ones.

  4. Jessica Tom on 10.10.2011 at 18:16 (Reply)

    Thanks for all the comments! @Jane_London – I agree — Lisbeth is a triumph of a character — kind and complicated, thoughtful and brave. @Christy – That’s an interesting perspective. I found that people tend to “get” extroverted characters right away. Not so with introverted characters. I was taught to underwrite, and I don’t think that quite works when a character is so internal.

  5. Susan on 11.10.2011 at 11:26 (Reply)

    Any recommendations for great kids books with introverted main characters? Besides Ferdinand the Bull :) I know a kid who loves Harry Potter and Percy Jackson but I’d love to provide some alternatives too.

    1. Susan Cain on 11.10.2011 at 11:34 (Reply)

      Great question, and I know there are so many of them! A Wrinkle In Time comes to mind.

    2. Christy on 11.10.2011 at 11:44 (Reply)

      Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery is a lovely story of a confidently introverted but very imaginative and “odd” girl persisting in being who she is despite a great deal of disapproval from relatives. “The Velvet Room” is a splendid book about a girl whose sneaking-away-and-hiding characteristics end up helping her family.
      And I don’t see any reason to confine children to “children’s books.” I grew up submersed in the classics, and I think books like “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” “I Capture the Castle,” and a lot of Gene Stratton Porter’s books and their introverted characters would be very interesting to some children.

  6. Brittany on 12.10.2011 at 10:24 (Reply)

    Awesome, I look forward to reading your book when it comes out! I really liked how you explained how to write an introverted character.

    “The best way to turn an introverted character into someone you want to spend 300+ pages with is by baring his or her soul in a way that might feel uncomfortable at first. But do that you must. You must prove she is not whiny, but sensitive and pained. She isn’t angry, but scared. She isn’t pathetic and lonely… but happier and more productive alone.”

    This was a really good summary of how to fully express an introverted character and help others understand and connect with him or her. Good luck with your writing!

  7. Platinum Media on 23.03.2013 at 09:37 (Reply)

    Hi,

    Nice little article – I’m currently writing a screenplay with an introverted main character, it’s a LOT harder – especially for an introvert to be cinematically dramatic.

    I like the idea that we need to seem them ‘bear their soul’, which I think is lacking in my script. There is an air of mystery that we can have surrounding an introverted character, and this has got to do with how they are around others, contrasted against how they are around themselves (what they do in private), anything that can show us who these people are. Sometimes you may need to externalise it.

    Andy Dufresne in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is a complete introvert, but his character, intentions and motivations are expressed/narrated through the OTHER character, ‘Red’. Having other characters, who’ve known them all their lives, refer to their traits is a good technique. ‘He has a brilliant mind’.

    The thing about introverts is they are more comfortable/expressive alone than around others, so show them at their best and their most emotionally relaxed – ALONE. This is when they ‘let loose’ more, and reveal more about themselves.

    THINKING is not dramatic at all – but at some point us introverts externalise our thoughts somehow to help us organise them, to then input them back into our minds again, show these kinds of externalisations.

    Cheers
    J

  8. [...] (Read the full blog post, Why Writing an Introverted Character & Why You Must Do It Anyway, here.) [...]

  9. Schuyler R. Thorpe on 09.09.2013 at 04:06 (Reply)

    Creating an introverted character isn’t that hard if you are introverted yourself in real life. You can share the qualities of yourself with your target character in question and really bring out the best in that character even if nothing exciting is truly going on.

    It’s mostly about the journey and the struggle in which the character goes through which will make the story or the novel all that more endearing to your readers–especially if you can properly extrapolate her struggles in a most humane way; rather than just throwing things out for shock value.

  10. Hannah on 27.12.2013 at 23:20 (Reply)

    LOVE love LovE this! This was what I needed to discover about writing my quiet main character! Thankyou!

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