Please welcome Faye Bird to the Outsider today. Author of the stunning What I Couldn't Tell You, the story of two sisters one of whom has Selective Mutism.
Writing A Passive Protagonist
As readers we have a rightful expectation that a story’s protagonist will be active. It’s easier to like an active protagonist. It’s easier to root for someone who is fighting the fight, particularly in the face of adversity. It’s harder to like a protagonist who doesn’t engage or push back, even if you understand why they perhaps can’t. And if we aren’t there rooting for our protagonist from the start of the story, caring enough about what happens to them, then it’s unlikely we’ll be there to find out where they’ve got to by the end.
I know all of this, as both a reader and as a writer, and yet in writing What I Couldn’t Tell You in my main character Tessie’s voice, I found myself writing a story with a passive not an active protagonist. So how did this happen?
Tessie has a condition called Selective or Situational Mutism (SM). SM is an anxiety disorder that prevents children speaking in certain situations such as at school or in public spaces. In public spaces, unable to speak, Tessie in my story is inevitably inescapably passive.
However I knew from the start that I wanted to write a first person narrative for Tessie because I loved the idea that a narrative could give someone with SM a voice that they wouldn’t otherwise have in the outside world. This was the driver, if you like, for me to write the story as I did, despite the challenges I knew a sometimes non-speaking protagonist would present.
I knew straight away that the absence of dialogue in certain key scenes outside of Tessie’s home would have a big impact on plotting, and I knew that overcoming these challenges would be crucial if I was going to write a successful crime thriller story too. I therefore put in the graft to find resolutions to these anticipated challenges early on.
But there were still challenges in the writing that I didn’t anticipate, and looking back now I think this was because I assumed that Tessie’s potential passivity would be remedied in some way by the first person narrative alone.
I assumed that if we read the thoughts inside Tessie’s head on the page, saw how her experience of SM affected her, saw how she wanted to speak in certain situations but couldn’t, and how she thought about what words she would say if she could, then the reader would be able to make sense of her inaction and in story terms it would resolve the potential problems of her passivity.
But it wasn’t as simple as that because without doubt in authentically representing SM through Tessie’s internal voice I actually risked not meeting the needs I had in the telling of my story. And I realized quite early on that getting Tessie’s voice right was really where the success or failure in resolving this problem within the storytelling rested.
In an accurate portrayal of SM Tessie necessarily responds to the drama around her in the story in a way that we as readers would not perhaps expect and at times perhaps she also acts in a way that we might wish she wouldn’t when she is faced with certain situations.
Tessie is a victim to bullying in the story, because this is not an uncommon experience of those with SM, and we see her simply accept the bullying and the pain it causes her in a way that may make us feel uncomfortable. Tessie is also inactive in the face of violence on occasion in the story in a way that readers may well find surprising, even shocking. But all these scenes are written as they are because they are true to the experience of her SM and how it affects the choices she makes.
But of course I didn’t want to write Tessie as a victim to her SM and above all I wanted to make her a whole and rounded character, a person with different quirks and traits just like anyone else. The driver of giving Tessie the voice of the story was made to both demystify the silence around those who suffer with SM, and in doing so, empower her.
As the story continues, and the stakes get higher, Tessie certainly becomes more active in the story. I made sure that this was the case. The way in which Tessie can listen, infer and observe through the distance her non-speaking creates gives her an active inner voice and a power to change things in the story in a way that no one else in the story can and does. I hope in this there is a dynamism that relieves her potential passivity in places and takes the reader closer to her action.
Certainly the first person narrative allows the reader to have the advantage of hearing her thoughts, her wants and her wishes in those places where she cannot make them known otherwise, and this is a valuable thing in storytelling terms. Because of course we want to see our protagonists survive the adversity they face, and if bad stuff happens to them (which it will) we need to see that somehow in some way they’re stronger because of it. This is the stuff of drama and it’s the way we find resolutions, and work towards making happy endings.
I therefore just hope that the balance that I struck in What I Couldn’t Tell You is enough to carry Tessie’s natural passivity so she is still liked, cared about, so she still keeps the story alive, whilst I also staying true to the depiction of SM within it. If you go on to read the book perhaps you will let me know how well or not I have done!