How to Amplify Your Characters' Subtext:

4 Ways to Amplify Your Characters’ Subtext

How to Amplify Your Characters' Subtext:The magic ingredient in fiction is subtext. In part, it is magic because of the dynamic reaction it creates in readers: their sudden ability to become an intelligent participant in interpreting the story. But also, it is magic because, like any good trick, it can be difficult for authors to interpret exactly how to execute it.

Nowhere is subtext more crucial than in characterization. Think of it this way: people are subtext. The expressions, words, and tones we share with the world are a bare scratching of our surfaces. We are all so much more than what others see. We are hidden desires and motives—unspoken humilities and arrogances—impossible dichotomies, hypocrisies, and paradoxes. Half the the time, we don’t even understand our own subconscious subtexts.

If, as a writer, you’re wanting to recreate that kind of deep and nuanced humanity on the page, you must seek to create excellent subtext in your characterizations.

So how do you do this?

It’s always about what you don’t say.

4 Ways to Mine Your Characters’ Subtext

Into the Fire Kim VandelOne of the best recent instances of excellent character subtext is award-winning YA author Kim Vandel’s paranormal series Under Fire, in which she brings to life a range of characters, but most notably her male lead—terrorist-turned-undercover-superhero Hassan, who is viewed only through the eyes of first-person narrator Kate.

Vandel’s approach to character subtext works particularly well for four reasons.

1. Limit the Number of POVs

Among the Flames Kim VandelSubtext is much harder to access from within a character’s POV, if only because internal narrative necessarily spells out certain facets of a character’s being. Often, this is a good thing (it’s why we love deep POVs). But limiting the number of narrators allows you more opportunities to explore the non-POV characters’ subtext.

Hassan is an interesting character in large part because he’s mysterious. Get in his head, even once, and most of that mystery—and opportunity for subtext—disappears.

2. Limit the Insights of Your Designated POV Character

Even with a single narrator, a story can ruin its chances for subtext simply by either allowing that narrator to be too insightful herself or by making her privy to too much information too fast.

Vandel pulls off another neat trick by creating a narrating hero who isn’t always observant enough to pick up on important details about the other characters (e.g., that Hassan is falling in love with her), which allows Vandel to let readers interpret certain character behaviors, rather than having the narrator immediately jump in with her own interpretations.

This doesn’t always work, since readers will rarely appreciate an outright oblivious character. But done handily, as Vandel does, in a realistic way, it opens up avenues for deeper subtext that informs both the secondary characters and the narrator herself, while also allowing for bigger and more frequent plot reveals.

3. Create Dimensional Characters

The first rule of character subtext is that there has to be subtext. You can’t just leave a character a big fat blank and expect readers to think: Oooh, so much subtext!

Subtext is all about hinting at what’s already there but not yet visible. This means creating dimensional characters who have dimensions to be discovered.

Vandel does this handily with most of her characters, but especially with Hassan—first, by giving him a complicated and interesting backstory that isn’t immediately explained, and, second, by making him a seemingly dichotomous person, whose surface violence immediately paints one picture, which is only slowly contrasted with other, less obvious characteristics.

4. Trust Your Characters

Perhaps the hardest part of creating excellent subtext in a story is trusting your wonderful characters to carry it for you. Most authors like to lean into the safety net of explaining things to readers. (“And, by the way, in case you missed it, this guy really is nice under all the misunderstood surface obnoxiousness.”)

Don’t fall into this trap. Follow Vandel’s example in not explaining your characters’ behaviors—either through their own narratives or someone else’s. Give them strong and dynamic choices and actions to perform, and then let those actions stand on their own. This is the essence of “show vs. tell.”

When in doubt, go through your manuscript and cross out every instance of explaining. Does the story still make sense? If not, of course, go back and add the necessary clarifications. But you might be surprised with how little you can get away with not explaining—and how much stronger your characters’ subtext becomes as a result.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you find most challenging about creating your characters’ subtext? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Okay, now I really need to read Kim’s stories. 🙂

    Maybe sometime you can do a post on my own peculiar problem — notext. It’s like subtext, only subtler. 😛 I just love subtlety so much that every once and a while I get to the point where my character’s motivations aren’t perfectly clear. It generally takes an explanation from the character’s POV to fix it, but this can be troublesome, because it can’t be a /blatant/ explanation.

    I just started writing my first story in deep third person, and one of the things I’m enjoying about it is being subtextual about the narrating character from within his own POV. I’m relying a lot on irony, having him think one thing and act another or say one thing and think another. It’s tremendous fun. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Heh. :p Frankly, “notext” probably means no context. Subtext only exists within the context. It’s great when we can create rich subtext from as little context as possible, but that’s a balance. It’s always better to include slightly more context than necessary rather than too little to make sense.

  2. Thank you! I’m humbled and honored to be used as an example. (And no pressure for book three, right??)

  3. Tom Youngjohn says:

    Highlighting a “Hassan” super hero novel? He better be atheist or Christian. Odd considering the source. Have you turned?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The novels are Christian.

    • Mmmm, having grown up in Southeast Michigan, allow me to clear up some confusion here:

      — You have Chaldeans, who are from Iraq (in the Bible they’re sometimes called Babylonians). They aren’t Arab, though they may have Arabic names such as “Ibrahim” (Abraham) but they’ll also have names like “Mike.” They speak Aramaic, and they’re Catholic.

      — You have Maronite Catholics, many of which are from Lebanon (example, actor Danny Thomas, whose birth certificate originally said “Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz.” Notice the names of his relatives on the show; I think one of them is actually Hassan).

      –You have Syrian Orthodox, who are also Christian.

      — You have Coptic Christians from Egypt, from back when North Africa was part of the Roman empire. Observe that the empire went as far as the Euphrates River (in Iraq) …

      Anyway, point being, Arabic name != Muslim. And in cases such as the Chaldeans, Arabic name != Arab.

      I quit watching “Designated Survivor” a few episodes in because the writers clearly didn’t know these other groups existed. The episode hinged on the idea that Michigan’s governor would just round up every Arab in Dearborn to get the Muslims (as if that’s even the only town they live in). This is why writers should always do research …

      • From a Pew poll about 10 years ago, there are more Catholic than Muslim Arabs in the United States, by about 35% to 30%

        We have a fair number of Antiochan Orthodox Lebanese/Syrians in my neighborhood. In fact, I saw the sign is up for the next Mid-East food sale at the church! Most of their last names are Biblical first names.

  4. Tanis Nessler says:

    An excellent, succinct article!

  5. Thank you for this. Helpful, as always. Less is more. Except when it’s not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Heh. Exactly. :p

      • I’m good at resisting temptations to explain. I make a list of facts to be shared in each scene and find ways for them to be mentioned. The clues are all there.

        But of course, are they too subtle for the readers? I recently rewrote my opening scene to better characterize the first person POV. I knew what I wanted to stress about him, but it was a lot of telling and a beta said, “I get it – hide the razor blades!” So I had to scale it back and show the MC interacting with his parents, friends and girls for a typical day before the inciting event.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s why betas are so important. It’s hard for us to be objective about own stuff, especially when it’s still hot.

  6. Point 2 seems to be the trickiest part of all, because like you said, it’s too easy to veer into making the character seem dumb. I like using multiple POVs to ration out information because some characters will have key knowledge, or natural areas of ignorance (like an astrophysicist should miss clues that only a wizard would spot: “One NEVER mixes eye of newt with rat’s tail!”).

    But I usually only see “oblivious” done well when either: a character is so hyperfocused that they miss anything not directly related to their goal, or in the case of romance, a person believes that there’s no way the other person could possibly be attracted to them. Side note, I’m wondering if “Hassan” was deliberately chosen because it means “handsome.” I could picture a plain Jane not imagining a Handsome Hunk would be attracted to her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m big into creating narrative experiences in which the readers are closely aligned with the protagonist’s experience–in that they do not expect or anticipate events the protagonist isn’t likewise expecting or anticipating. This is often much harder than it seems, especially when you also have to foreshadow plot twists. But it’s a worthy challenge and offers the opportunity to create all kinds of interesting subtext along the way.

  7. Excellent article and just what I needed before going into rewriting-mode in a few weeks. Somehow I’ve always struggled with this, and as a result my older stories never went beyond what came out on the paper, Which, I Guess, made them feel a little flat. I’ll take this with me, I especially appreciated the last point.

  8. If we look at our lives and simply write down what happened, write down what God did or is doing, then subtext takes care of itself. Bc like u said, KM, people are subtext – and who best does people than you know, God ?
    We simply need to hone our powers of observation ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. It’s all about observation and being able to share the pertinent details the reveal the subtext.

  9. DirectorNoah says:

    Brilliant article, K.M.
    I love subtext in fiction, and I love writing it too, planting all the subtle hints and clues about the character’s deeper motivations and mind, without directly explaining it. Subtext gets you thinking and wondering, and it brings so many layers and extra dimensions to characters, beyond what they appear to be on the surface. People are full of subtext, and are books in themselves, that can be read with a touch of writer’s magic.
    IMO, subtext is a little more tricky to pull off in books than in movies. In movies, good actors can subtly perform and show expressions, that speak volumes about what they’re really thinking and feeling inside. But in books, the writer must provide enough detailed clues and information for the readers to interpret the signs correctly.
    As a famous actor once said, “good acting is not what you say, it’s what you *don’t* say.” I think that applies to subtext with characters in novels as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about subtext being different in movies vs. books. The narrative form of written fiction, in itself, dispels much of the subtext you get in the visual form of movies. When we’re in a character’s head, we are necessarily sharing more context than subtext.

  10. I really agree with you on the idea of subtext as a kind of magic trick. In the same way as a magic trick is a kind of subtle and elegant manipulation. A seduction even. Bringing your attention to this side when I`m touching your ear on this other side.
    thanks for all your work!
    cheers from Chile

  11. trish cosey says:

    I love your writing books, but the workbooks really are the best thing for my writing. Love them all.

  12. Ms. Albina says:

    Great article, I am doing the third person for Lotus’s story. She does have three sisters and also parents. When you write to you put the manarisiams the character does in your writing like twirls her hair on her finger?

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