Normally, I specialize in strong, determined, uncompromising, extroverted protagonists, "If the laws of physics are against us, too bad, they need to be changed." I'm pretty good in getting them right.

But this time I tried at someone opposite: a character who is introverted, shy, uncertain, afraid, lost and confused. Unable to fit in, afraid to experiment and try to accept the overwhelming world, a recluse, outcast, working a disrespectful, dead-end job, and not daring to speak up against abusers. Meanwhile, a very nice and smart person, though rarely given any opportunity to shine, and the few times when he tries to take initiative, it backfires badly, discouraging him even further.

I've managed to get the primary, larger scale elements sketched: the abuse, finding him in a scapegoat position, underlining his avoidance of spotlight positions, reluctance towards taking any initiative. Still, the closer image is lacking badly and I really don't know how to proceed. The image I have drawn so far could be misinterpreted as someone who is thick-skinned, naturally passive (lazy), dull in their unwillingness to act, emotionless, or just hard to understand and alien.

The stranger is in fact very emotive, terribly afraid, suffering from solitude badly, often powerlessly angry, and suffering from terrible self-esteem. Thing is, he hides his emotions, keeps them in not to let others hurt him further and take for even weaker than he feels. For the world he is a dull, thick-skinned nobody, and so I fail to make him anybody else for the reader.

This mask is too efficient, and narrating from perspective of an external observer I'm having a very hard time getting the emotions across to the reader. I'm trying to show rare glimpses when the mask drops momentarily, but I'm afraid that's not enough, the readers may consider them more as my omissions and mistakes than as essential pieces of revelation. They are too little to get the readers to like him for who he really is, and feel compassionate.

I need something better, something stronger, that will get the reader deeper into the mindset of the unfortunate stranger, and it needs to be applicable early enough into the story that the revelation doesn't come as a late surprise to the bored and impassive reader but gets them into the character's inner sanctum, revealing their true self without breaking the plot - friendless, lonely recluse won't normally allow any stranger there, one would need a good build-up of trust towards that, and that build-up takes time, and so the revelation gets delayed... you get it. I consider some bullies just "breaking in", but then how to make it not destroy the poor character?

So, how would you paint this kind of character? What kind of motives would you use? Do you know any literary works with such protagonists? I know a few examples of movies - Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Roberto Benigni managed to masterfully draw that type of characters in saddest of their comedies. Still, the expressiveness of the medium, their wonderful play with whole body, indescribable facial expressions, and hard to copy situations are something which is probably beyond my skill of transferring to paper.

(some more info: the setting is similar to modern, a medium-sized town with its corrupt "ruling elite" and neutral citizens mostly honest but staying out of trouble, the character is obviously a foreigner, an immigrant/refugee not of a kind common there, and while probably he would find some good help and even friends if he just started looking, he's too afraid to try.)

  • Make sure you do not get trapped by cliches. Your protagonists sounds much too depressed. You either write a satire (like Allen and Chaplin did) or your protag needs a psychiatrist just for open the door, not speaking of getting outside. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 16:48
  • @JohnSmithers: if you think this sets the mood of the story, you're quite mistaken. Only after learning how poor and depressed our character is, you can appreciate how inadequate he is when thrown right into the middle of a James Bond style intrigue.
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 17:20
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    Cool question. An important clarification: Is this a POV character? Can we "see" into his thoughts? Or are we seeing him entirely "from the outside"?
    – Standback
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 18:57
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    @Standback: No, "narrating from perspective of an external observer" - it's a 3rd person narration with "partially omniscent" narrator bound to a different character with rare exceptions; definitely not peeking into minds of others. You can assume 1st person of a different character for all practical purposes of this question. If the narrator could peek into the mind of that character, I wouldn't be asking this!
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 20:58
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    You asked about literary works with such protagonists. Two come readily to mind -- Quoyle from The Shipping News (Annie Proulx) and Lisbeth Salander from Steig Larsson's Millennium Series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).
    – JAM
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 4:16

5 Answers 5


I like the pet the dog reference real well. I don't think it amounts to much more than one character observing and compiling observations of The Stranger because she is interested in understanding him. Plenty of thick-skinned characters come to mind, but it doesn't do to go into detail. What will become a significant plot element, what will keep us interested in The Stranger, is how you allow his inner struggles to surface through another character's eyes.

Inscrutability is not a reason to dislike or write off a character. In fact, it is a reason to look closely at him. We want to know why he is cryptic and closed off. If you are providing small clues to his reasoning throughout the story, you are doing the right thing; you're stringing your reader along, and he will follow. On the contrary, if the character, whose initial impression is introverted, emotes too strongly early in the story, that won't make sense, and he may be written off because of it.

  • I'm going to accept it - Lauren got the idea first, but you explained in detail how to use it and how it can work - from her brief description I couldn't really think up how a single random act of kindness could be perceived as anything than random randomness, and not peeking into the soul...
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 17:52

What you need to do is show your introvert to the reader when no other characters are looking, or when he's with people he's close to in some sense.

Does your introvert cry when he goes home from his job? Write in his journal or a private blog? Kick himself for not speaking up about something? What about when he talks to his parents, his brother, his landlady? Does he tell him things he wouldn't tell his boss?

Another similar technique is [WARNING: TVTROPES LINK] called Pet The Dog, which shows us an otherwise Jerk character doing something nice, so we realize the Jerk has a heart of gold under the crusty exterior.


Having bullies "breaking in", as you put it, doesn't necessarily have to destroy the character. It's natural that under a lot of stress, his facade would start to crack. Put him in some high-pressure situations, but snatch him away at the last moment if you don't want him to be too damaged, especially if it's early on. It's your story, so you can give him an out. Coincidences do happen in real life, and it may even be a chance for your observer character to connect with this guy.

It may also be a good way to convey to your readers the extent of the abuse he endures, which also helps them empathise with him.

  • It would be pretty nice, but he really is pretty lonely with nobody to stick for him, and I'd prefer to avoid deus ex machina rescue early on... as there will be quite enough of that happening later. (natural-born prey, a perfect bait.)
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 12:00
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    You could consider not rescuing him. :P He may crack, but humans are pretty resilient. He could break, run away, take days (weeks, if your timeline allows) to put the facade back up, and then you'd also have a good reason for him to let it slip more often throughout the story.
    – Lexi
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 13:17

The way I went about it, is giving the Stranger a Single-serving friend, to whom the Stranger dares to open up just enough to give us a glimpse, and who happens to be not nearly as single-serving as it seemed (leading to the protagonist and the Stranger to meet later.)

Quoting Fight Club:

Narrator: Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They're single-serving friends.

  • Interesting solution :). Hope it works out well.
    – Tannalein
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 4:00

Bring the Narrator Closer

The richness of the character is inside their own head, so bring the narrator in to give the reader a view inside.

As a quick example: If A asks B a question, and the reader sees B mumble "Sure" as a response, B comes off as surly.

But if A asks B a question, and the reader sees B panic internally at the thought of speaking in front of a group, and then realize they have waited too long to answer and blurt out a muttered "Sure" to end the painfully awkward interaction... well then B comes off as something completely different.

I think it's going to be difficult to get this character across without letting the reader know a little of what they are thinking and feeling.

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