Everyone knows the importance of a well-defined and well-rounded characters. If they’re not well constructed, your reader will see through them, they’ll make the story clunky and difficult to really get in to. They’ll stand out, jump off the page, and when the reader is finished, they’ll be left with a sense of dissatisfaction. A vague sense that something here was wrong, something not done well.
This is just as true for the unspoken characters. These sneaky creatures have just as much impact on your story as your true cast, but they’re harder to spot, both for the writer and the reader. Dead relatives of central characters are prominent examples of this, but perhaps the one to be most wary of is Place.
If you set your story in Dublin, for example, every reader seeing the script brings their own inherent bias to the story. The social connotations of a busy, urban, capital city in a predominantly rural country, the history of the place, the economics of it. The truly great writers have exploited this and use it to power their story forward. The rural setting in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman helps place us correctly, it drives the story and our understanding of the characters. JK Rowling’s Hogwarts connects modern witches and wizards to the ancient history which has been their traditional place in literature. Stephen King sets most of his work in Maine, New England, which was the setting for the works of Lovecraft, one of the originators of the horror genre. Here the unspoken character of Place fits the story, we feel comfortable there, or uncomfortable as the story requires.
In film, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Ireland’s very own Kevin Lehane’s Grabbers have made Place such a central character that the stories simply couldn’t be anywhere else. They’re crucial to the story because of the connection between our understanding of these places and the position of the characters in them.
So when we’re deciding the Place to set our story, our knowledge of the location should be a secondary concern, the power of the silent character should be the first consideration. Think about the characteristics of the central characters. A cynical central character needs a wealth of opportunities to show their cynicism to the reader, which typically means they need other people, so large towns or cities. A romantic needs a vista, something to represent that part of who they are, so place them where they can have that. There’s no doubt that placing them where they can’t have the things they want might be central to your story, but even this requires careful consideration of where they belong. Tailor the place to suit your characters, not your own understanding or knowledge of the location.
Some places have become so iconic that it’s almost impossible to separate the characters from them, and as such the stories must be an embracing of the Place or a complete rejection of it in order for the unspoken character not to take over the story.
For example, a story about a person rejecting capitalism or modernity can be easily located in New York City since the place is synonymous with both of those ideas, and the central character’s rejection of these things is a rejection of the place that she or he lives in. The same story is laughably out of place when set in Doolin, County Clare, and still out of place (though not as hilariously) in Cork City or Limerick City.
It’s our understanding of New York City and what it represents in books, movies, popular culture that gives us this perspective, though at times we’re not even conscious of it. We have these little biases about every place, and the more iconic the more carefully we have to consider its implications for our characters.
When writing Me, Myself and Them, I was frighteningly conscious of the power of Place. Writer and director Gerry Stembridge mentored me for a short film project (an absolute mine of information) and he’d warned me about just how much Place could reflect story, so I deliberately set the novel in an unnamed and undefined city. By removing the name, I let the reader decide what kind of town or city they’d like to imagine, since the character of the Place isn’t relevant to the story. Readers from Limerick may well recognise some of the locations, since they were the inspiration for the bars and cafes used, but the story isn’t set in Limerick; it’s set in wherever you want it to be, in order to rob Place of any strength of character.
The rest of the cast of unspoken characters are all around us: wealth, deceased family or friends (not always unspoken these ones), technology, date, pets (not always unspoken either actually). Watch for them in your writing, choose them carefully and consider their impact on your characters and story. The temptation to place your story in familiar surroundings is strong, because we think that if we understand it better we can write it better, but remember that if it doesn’t fit, it will be noticed, consciously or otherwise.
Happy place hunting!
(c) Dan Mooney
About Me, Myself and Them:
‘I’ve never quite read anything like it… funny, moving and terrifying all at once.’ Rick O’Shea
Struggling to cope with a tragic loss, Denis Murphy has learned to live a bit differently. Both his friends are used to it – the only problem is his monstrous housemates.
When his enigmatic ex-girlfriend comes back into his life, she threatens to shatter the finely crafted world around him.
As Denis begins to re-emerge from his sheltered existence and rediscover the person he used to be, things turn nasty, and he is forced to confront the demons that share not only his house, but also his head.
Order your copy online here.