Q&A

How Do I Write Shy Characters Without Slowing Down the Story?

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I’ve noticed in fiction that shy characters tend to be written badly and much differently from how they are in real life. Many shy characters are passive in plots because they lack the enthusiasm and drive that extroverted characters have. They tend to be slow or unwilling to take action due to their insecurities. While having internal obstacles can be an interesting addition to a plot, I find myself annoyed whenever shy characters dwell on their problems and anxieties. This causes the plot to drastically slow down and focus on their problems which often feel insignificant when compared to the other events going on. Many shy characters are often dragged through the plot by other characters and don’t take actions on their own. I am currently writing a story and I have been considering making the main character shy. Do you have any advice for how to write shy characters well without them being passive or dragging the plot?

Thank you for your time. I appreciate it!

-Owen

Hi Owen,

Based on what you’ve said, I think you might already know the answer. While many writers might associate shyness with general reluctance, being shy is different from lacking drive or being fearful. Being shy simply means the character has some discomfort interacting with people they don’t know well and generally minimizes those interactions if they can. It doesn’t mean they can’t communicate when it’s important. There’s nothing keeping them from being an action hero or otherwise engaging with urgent problems. In fact, a shy badass is a great combo that can create a really interesting character.

Even if you want the shyness to be the basis for a character arc, they don’t have to stop and angst over it. They just need to make small choices based on being shy, like not speaking up or avoiding some social situations – the reader needs to know why they are making those choices, but they don’t have to dwell on them. Then, later, they might decide they have to push themselves because communicating is urgent, or they might slowly get to know another character and become less nervous in their presence.

A great example of a shy action hero is the main character of All Systems Red. This is a novella by Martha Wells, and it’s a great story. The main character is a construct with little experience socializing with humans and an aversion to it, but they act decisively when the situation calls for it.

Now, if your story is focused on socializing and human relationships, then you might have a little more trouble keeping your hero in the game. In that case then, shyness is a conflict-generating obstacle that they should proactively work around. I would have one or two characters that are close to your hero who they can speak freely with, and have them look for fun and inventive ways of getting what they need done despite being tongue-tied, like sending people to speak in their place (maybe pretending to be them even) or sending notes. A good example of a story like this is the 2001 movie Amelie.

Since you’re already set on avoiding the problems you’ve seen, I think you’ll do fine.

Happy writing,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Raillery

    In providing the following example, lemme admit up front this was once my personal MO, and possibly still somewhat is.
    Although the stereotype is the sedentary, hesitant, reclusive shy person, I’ll echo Chris’s point that social anxiety can also motivate people to be proactive. While most people seem to be capable of sitting in a circle and engaging in discussion face-to-face up to hours at a time, a shy person caught in this situation might focus their social stamina towards suggesting a diversion. “Let’s get off our bums and go do [something active]” is an elegant solution if received well by the group: it covers one’s shyness by giving the impression of a confident social leader while getting the suggester out that scenario, and once the group’s collective momentum is rolling you can go back to comfortably tagging along.
    Character-wise, you could use shyness as a reason a character might jump into action instead of making the effort to gather others’ honest opinions or input and negotiating the most ideal resolution.

  2. Cay Reet

    I think it’s also important to remember that being shy towards people doesn’t mean being indecisive at all. A person who is, for instance, rather introverted might not talk much to others and avoid large groups of people, because it’s draining (for an introvert, it really is) and because they don’t feel comfortable around anyone outside a small group of close friends, but they can still decide very quickly how to handle a situation and what to do next. Some people don’t speak up, even if they know what to do or have the answer to a questions, sometimes because of a natural shyness, sometimes because they’ve been taught not to be so ‘forward’ (especially women). They will have problems rallying others or telling everyone about their plan, but they can still carry it out, perhaps find someone to be their ‘mouth’ and take over the talking.

    Somewhere on the internet, not sure where, there’s a short story about an introverted human on an alien ship. The aliens are worried about them, because they’re silent, they hardly talk apart from the regular greeting, they spend a lot of time alone, they’re often found just watching, but the humans tell them it’s okay, that one is simply an introvert and they behave like that. When the ship is captured by space pirates, all inhabitants are cornered in the loading bay and the aliens fear for the humans – who are expensive contraband. The only human missing is the introvert. Then the light goes out and there are only enough shots to bring down the pirates (who, unluckily, have some biolumenescent stripes on their hide). When the light comes on again, they find the introvert has come through the airducts, turned off the light, and shot all intruders. Being shy towards others doesn’t necessarily mean not being able to save the day.

  3. Lord Degarius

    I would suggest also looking at Manga and Anime to get plenty of examples, as they tend to gravitate toward protagonists being shy to some extent. I suppose that this is something that resonates more with Japanese audiences than Western public.

    While many of the protagonists in this medium do match the stereotype of the shy person unwilling to act, you also get the other end of the spectrum where you have very capable protagonists who tend to be very silent / mysterious and not outgoing. Some examples of very capable characters, not afraid to act, that come to the top of my head are Sasuke from Naruto, Akane from Psycho-Pass, Legoshi from Beastars or Violet Evergarden. While they have their moments of insecurity here and there, they are not really completely held back by their personalities.

    Something I appreciate from Manga/Anime is that in many instance they do actually take advantage of their characters being shy / introverted, giving us introspective / reflective moments to balance action or characters growth acts.

  4. Erynus

    Couldn’t concealing his/her identity would help with the shyness/introversion? i mean, in my experience, things like internet, where no one would know who a person is, help to cope with what people may say.
    I can picture a shy protagonist that hides behind a mask to help others. Spider-man for example (more Miles than Parker, but Peter have his share of it too).

    • Cay Reet

      With a merely shy character, it might help. Distance (as with communicating online) can also definitely help.

      Introverts don’t like being around other people for extended periods, so masks aren’t going to change anything there.

      Do not fully equate shyness and introvertedness. Introverted people can be very good at communicating and not at all shy about talking to others, they just need extended periods of being alone. Shy people can still like being around others, even if they don’t like being in the spotlight.

      • Rosenkavalier

        Definitely this. All too often ‘shyness’ is depicted as identical too being introverted, passive or indecisive, when they’re all distinct and different character traits.

  5. Ken Hughes

    There’s a difference between being hesitant and being shy — shy makes someone hesitant around *people*, but only that.

    If someone is shy but active otherwise, the word is “loner.” Nothing weak there.

    Or even if they do hesitate… the story can be paced so they have time to react and get their nerve up as things develop. That’s not so different from a Harry Potter book, taking all year to solve a mystery, though Harry shifts in and out of hesitating. Or the story can get in their face and force them to decide, as long as the decisions they make are interesting enough that we don’t mind someone was reacting.

  6. Rosenkavalier

    I think it’s also worth remembering that shyness doesn’t necessarily express itself uniformly in all situations, and that it varies considerably between individuals. I’m painfully shy – I find unfamiliar social situations to be nerve-wracking, hate having to engage in small-talk with strangers and am horrified by the idea of having to make any sort of performance in front of an audience. However, I have no difficulties with presenting research at conferences or lecturing to large groups.

    And as has been pointed out by Raillery, amongst others, shy people are often remarkably good at developing strategies for getting things done whilst avoiding situations they’ll find awkward or uncomfortable, often taking the initiative within groups to ensure that they can take on roles which steer clear of too many social interactions or of being the centre of attention.

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