I recently read Ballad, by Maggie Stiefvater. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but it struck me hard. One of the themes of the book applies to almost everything: the Unsaid. Words people don’t say.
One of the ‘viewpoints’ of the book consisted of text messages from the protagonist of the first book, Lament. While she had no true viewpoint in Ballad, her texts showed her character arc. Each text, addressed to the viewpoint character, showed a bit of her soul— and each text, personal and short, remained unsent. She never actually said anything she wanted to say.
The viewpoint character of Ballad, on the other hand, made his thoughts the analogue of the unsent texts. Nothing he wanted to say, he said. He thought everything, and made jokes to cover up the silence.
It was a powerful way to write the character dynamics, just between the two of them. When combined with all the Unsaid between the viewpoint character and the other characters, it created an amazing weave of half-truths and assumptions that were too delicate ever to speak plainly.
Is Maggie Stiefvater alone in her understanding of the Unsaid? I don’t think so. This is a concept that finds itself almost everywhere— and I mean that. But for the sake of my sanity, I’ll focus on fiction. You can ponder the repercussions.
Every character has an Unsaid personal to them. Beneath that, they have different sections of the Unsaid to use, or to hide, from different people. One branch of the Unsaid might be hidden from everyone, the secret you don’t want known, and no one wants to know. Another branch might be shown to one person, but not to another. All of it rests on one question: how do I want to seem?
Let’s go back to the standard example of Bill, Dave, and Sally, on their quest. Bill is the leader, and he wants to seem in control at all times. That’s his general Unsaid. When something goes wrong, he tries to cover it up by having a plan, or acting like he expected the problem. However, this Unsaid is aimed almost completely toward Sally. Dave is a longtime friend; he knows exactly how often Bill messes up. But Sally is a new member of the team, and she still rebels against Bill’s leadership. In front of her, Bill has to seem completely in control, no matter what.
But beneath that, Bill just wants to be liked. Sally has been insulting for the first few weeks she’s traveled with Bill and Dave— Bill, trying to be in control all the time, has only exacerbated this. Although he desperately wants Sally to follow him out of friendship rather than out of necessity (Sally is just tagging along for the free meals), he can’t do anything about it because becoming her friend means losing control, and looking silly for everything he’s done to keep control.
And this is only from Bill’s side. Sally, meanwhile, is being abrasive because that’s how she treats everyone— but she’s only sticking around because she likes both of them. Everyone else she’s known has treated her as worthless, but Bill has seen what she can do and made her feel useful. Despite seeing his megalomania, Sally enjoys that. But she can’t show that to either of them.
What does Sally say when asked about this? What would Bill say when asked about himself? “It’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.” They want to say one thing, but hold back because they don’t want to appear inconsistent— but by holding back, they appear as the opposite of what they want. Because none of these wants and fears are ever spoken, the Unsaid remains a confusing mass of emotions.
The Unsaid happens when people stereotype themselves, or accept another’s stereotype, and become stuck in a rut. Getting out of the rut and saying what they truly feel means appearing fickle, or weak, or inconsistent. Thus, the monologue of want runs through their minds at every turn, yet they stay in the rut. They’ve been there so long, how can they change?
Perhaps what I’m detecting here is just teenage angst. Giving Sally and Bill each fifty years and senior discounts might destroy all of these conflicting emotions— but I don’t think so. Wanting one appearance while stuck with another seems to be a common problem for people, regardless of age. There is always a circumstance that will create this sort of painful impossibility in someone.
How do you work with this, then? How do you incorporate the Unsaid into a story? It’s a story-long process, so it can’t be implemented and resolved in a single scene— how do you do it?
First of all, the rut. What stereotype restricts the first character? The second? This happens immediately once they meet. First impressions, stereotyping, and assumptions about what the other is thinking all muddle into the rut each falls into. Essentially, neither character wants to be the first to open up and tell the whole truth— so they leave out information, or tell half-truths. This puts each into a rut that neither wants to enter, but each will keep because, again, they don’t want to be the first to open up.
Even if your character isn’t necessarily proud, there will come a time when they get stuck in a rut through these impressions and assumptions. There is always someone for whom the character will want to appear a certain way, even if they’ve never cared about their appearance before.
The second step is to introduce the true thoughts of the character. How does the character actually want to appear to this person? Even though this remains Unsaid for the character, it can be shown through inexplicable actions, or through thoughts. Perhaps what is Unsaid between two characters might be perfectly clear between two others— thus, the reader is clued in without spilling the beans completely.
Then, essentially, you build up the tension. Perhaps one character finds out the other’s Unsaid without them realizing. Perhaps, trying to forget their own Unsaid, the character pushes their emotions onto someone else completely, trying to convince themselves that the emotion isn’t toward a specific person, and they can fill the hole in some other way. But eventually, tension will build until the rut cannot continue. Then, one character opens up to the other, creating an instant plot twist or a heart-stopping moment as you wait for the other character’s reaction.
Easy examples, although spoilery if I try to explain them: Lament and Ballad, by Maggie Stiefvater; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (basically a complete course in the Unsaid, conveniently titled with prejudice that gets the characters into the rut and pride that keeps each from escaping it); and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The latter certainly isn’t a book, but it works; in fact, both the rut and the pride/fear that keeps the main character in the rut are portrayed in the opening song. (And then it complicates things by adding another Unsaid, in the next song.)
Looking back at this post, I realize I just described internal conflict. I like my term better, and the implications it has, even if it was a harder post to write.