Friday, August 31, 2012

The Power of Absence


Sometimes the most powerful aspect of a character is his absence. 

Absence not only makes the heart grow fonder, but also more suspicious, anxious, and curious. A great example of this in a published book is Reth in Kiersten White's Paranormalcy trilogy

Kiersten White created a whole cast of compelling characters, but Reth stood out to me as particularly compelling.

As I read this book for the first time, I found that if Reth was on stage, I couldn't even put my book down to go to the bathroom! I just knew something incredible/freaky/twisted was going to happen before he vanished again. 

How did she do that?

Here are some thoughts:

  • She limited his appearances: Reth only shows up when it matters. There's no idle chit chat with him. She doesn't show him going to the bathroom (if faeries even do that sort of thing).
  • She showed other people's responses to him: We see the gestures of fear, hear the interior monologue of the MC whenever he's around--and after he leaves. Because we know how Reth makes her feel, we know how he ought to make us feel. 
  • She made him round: We all remember from school the difference between a round character and a flat character. Flat is like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. She has no character arc, learns no lesson, makes no great change. She is who she is, and that's an evil pink dictator. Round, like Reth, is a character who is both good and bad, who has depth, who may change at any moment, or whom we are just now getting to know. Through the whole book, I think I know what kind of faerie Reth is, and then Wablammy! My perception of him changes with one well-placed revelation.
  • She gave him a connection to the main character:  There's a reason I picked a side character for this little analysis. Main characters are almost always well-developed. We spend the most time with them, creating their back stories, giving them a favorite color, favorite TV show, favorite pet peeve. Reth is not the main character in Paranormalcy, but you get the feeling at times that it's his story, too. Kiersten accomplishes that feeling by giving him a very strong connection to the main character. He isn't just a possessive faerie, as he first seems. He's much more to Evie. Even before any grand revelations, we can feel that connection and it makes him important--compelling. 
Absence is also particularly powerful in love stories. Think Stephenie Meyer's New Moon. After Edward leaves (in order to protect Bella from his dangerous eating habits), she falls into a deep depression. Rather than going on for pages about how depressed she is, Meyer fills several pages with nothing. The only word on the page is the empty month it represents to Bella. 





The following chapter is called "Waking Up," but even as Bella comes out of the depression to enjoy a friendship with Jacob, Edward's absence remains the driving force in the story. It drives her to an obsession with motorcycles, which brings her straight to Jacob and a relationship that changes all of their lives. 

Absence did that.

In Harry Potter 2, the absence of letters from his friends makes HP's summer particularly painful. In Book 5, the absence of information and visitors drives Harry to become resentful for the first time in his adventures. Dumbledore's absence is repeatedly used to drive Harry, Hermione, and Ron toward danger. 

The absence of one or more parents has a profound impact on any character. Some of the best stories have stripped their heroes of all family, leaving them driven either for revenge or to get those family members back.

This week I've suffered through the absence of my husband as he works in California and I visit my family post-baby in Utah. Even though I'm surrounded by family, nobody can replace Bill. His absence impacts my every thought and action. My sister is here, a senior airman and military spouse, waiting for her husband's next assignment so they can be together again. For her, it has been much longer than a week. 

Absence is a powerful force. Think how it's affected your life, and you'll know exactly how to torture your characters. 

Happy Weekend Reading! 
What will you read this weekend? 
(I'm still working on Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass)


  1. I've never thought about this before, although it's so true, even in my own books. This is what gets me flipping the pages in Pride and Prejudice so fast, I want Mr. Darcy back in the story! This weekend I think I might tackle Delirium. Can't wait for some reading time!

    1. Darcy is a great example! In Pamela Aiden's retelling of their story from Darcy's POV, Elizabeth's absence wreaks havoc on him, too.

      Ooh, Delirium! I haven't read that one yet, but it's on my list.

  2. awesome post :D The absence of someone important often fuels my characters' decisions. Absence can be a powerful thing :)

    1. Thanks, Michelle. :) Sooo looking forward to the publication of Treasured Lies!

  3. I've never thought of absence like that...I'll have to give it a try!

    I just started Haven Kimmel's IODINE. So far it's been fantasticly twisty, and I can't wait to finish it.

  4. Great post, I never really analyzed how absence can be so profound in character development. Thanks for pointing this out.

    I'm reading Nevermore for the third time. I love adore this book. Afterwards, I finally get to start Enshadowed. It's a Kelly Creagh holiday weekend.

  5. Excellent post! I hadn't put much thought into this before, but you're soooooo right. Absence is very powerful - and can cause a whole range of emotions! I'm going to have to think about this some more! Thanks :)

  6. Imagination fills in the blanks. Kind of a version of show vs tell.

    Great post!

  7. I'm reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. I'm not super into the dystopian genre but this book was recommended by so many people I had to read it! It's definitely a page turner and I'm really interested in the different dynamics of the factions.

    Those chapters in New Moon struck me; I have definitely experience that kind of emptiness as a teen so I can see why it strikes a chord with readers.

  8. Excellent post! Absence really is a powerful tool and can definitely be good if used correctly. I also never realized it, but you are right. Umbridge is completely flat.

  9. I'm usually a lurker around here, but this post was too good not to comment on. I don't think I've ever thought about it quite like this, and I'm very happy you brought it up. In fact, a few hours later, I'm still sitting here with an urge to smack myself in the forehead while muttering, "why didn't I see that before?"

    Thank you. Now I have some story editing to do. :D


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