The Unsaid

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.

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34 thoughts on “The Unsaid

  1. DUDE. THIS POST IS AWESOME. I think I will devote my writing/brainstorming/character figuring out session to this concept tonight. I can do so much with this.

    I might need to reread Lament, and try Ballad. Lament didn’t click with me the first time, but now that I’m at learning about writing from reading, that may have changed.

    1. This was such a confusing post to write— I’m glad you made sense of it. By all means, contact me about it when you figure it out.

      Ballad is better than Lament, in the opinions of many.

      1. I’m thinking of writing a follow-up post. Don’t know if that’ll actually happen, but it might.

        Good to know. I know Ballad’s MC is the MC of Lament’s friend, and I liked him.

  2. Magnificent (I’m avoiding “excellent” thanks to Robyn) point and application of “the unsaid.” I would venture to say it’s not the only kind of internal tension, but certainly it is a common variety.

    I agree that if you can find the unsaid things between characters, it gives a lot of material to work with. I think I’ll follow suit with Lily and do a bit of work on this with a few of my characters soon.

    Of course, it’s also an important point in reality, as most points about characters are. After all, that’s how we relate to characters–we’ve experienced something similar ourselves. I’d like to think I’ve become rather adept at spotting these in people, especially myself, and working to resolve it where I can. (Which usually means being the first to say something, which is difficult, but usually works out well.)

    Finally, I think your analysis of the factors behind this “unsaid” thing is probably accurate. Pride and assumptions absolutely have a lot to do with it, and I’d add that the person’s view of the one/ones they aren’t saying things to affects things as well. I guess you touched on it with the statement, “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.” I think the level/amount of “unsaids” varies depending on the people involved, but most likely everyone has some lying around.

    Okay, this got long. Whoops. Thanks for giving me something to think about besides Leonardo da Vinci’s alarming and little-known traits.

    1. Well, it’s nice to have a magnificent point now and again. Thank you.

      Honesty is extremely hard when you really focus on it— and difficult to realize exactly how hard, at times. You think you’re completely open with people and then you realize you’ve led them to believe you’re wrangling snakes or something…

      This concept is difficult because it rests on the idea that characters will not be perfect. We all know that, but to purposefully write a character who is too proud to admit a tiny mistake like allowing herself to seem aloof— it seems like we’re breaking morals. But anyway.

      Alarming and little-known? Perhaps things have remained Unsaid for a reason…

      1. I’m sure it is…

        Indeed. Kind of odd how that works, isn’t it? And I do hope you aren’t wrangling snakes. That sounds like a potentially hazardous hobby.

        Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s hard to purposefully create flaws, especially ones we’d frown upon if we saw it ourselves.

        Ha. Ha, ha, ha. Perhaps so. Really, I think it’s a good thing here. I did not wish to read this during research. (What can I say? I’m really tired of this part of history.)

      1. You know… I remember that. With a little searching, I think I even might know where it is.
        I think I’ll quit singing, then.

        Does your blog have problems with singing The Sound of Music, Liam? (Just trying to find something else…)

    1. And now that I’ve read this post for the, what, fourth time, I finally get it and can truly comment. And so I promptly forgot what I was going to say. Great.

      …and I’ve been sitting here for like ten minutes trying to remember what I was going to say, but I can’t seem to. Eh, oh well, I guess you get a boring comment, then. This post did give me an idea on how to add conflict between two particular characters, though. So…thanks.

      And, um, good post!

  3. Oh, his name is Bill? Sorry! I thought it was Buddy. :-S (I’m so sorry, Bill.)
    Nice points here… Some characters are easier than others. Some, like Tony Stark, are blatant and come right out about themselves at times (though they have things they don’t say too,) while others are ridiculously reticent; having to cue the reader in through little clues… think Horatio Hornblower or Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Which is part of why Anakin gets to not liking Obi-Wan any more, because Obi-Wan doesn’t talk about himself and Anakin gets tired of practicing his skills of observation.)

      1. Yeah. Any character who says they have nothing to hide (even if they are telling the truth) isn’t a character you can trust.
        True… He had this horrible tendency to just mash everything down inside. (Still, the younger actor did a marvelous job of bringing prequel-trilogy Obi-Wan to life, giving out those subtle cues… I think the thing about Obi-Wan is he feels deeply, but you have to read well between the lines to see it, and that’s why some people hate him so much, because he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve or, at least, consciously makes the decision not to, because he thinks that emotion is the same thing as vulnerability.)

      2. (Yeah, pretty much. But he’d probably be sort of the same way, even without a Jedi upbringing. And later on he started to show a bit of a maverick streak.)

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