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The Silent Protagonist: The Power of Minimalist Characters

Writing is a challenging task, no matter a person’s experience, willingness, or creativity. There’s a lot to comprehend with world-building, developing a story, taking risks, and, most importantly, creating a character. Characters make or break a story, and if you don’t have great characters, your story will suffer.


Some of the most intriguing and difficult characters to craft in cinema, television, and video games are silent protagonists. Minimalist characters may seem easy to craft from the outside since there’s less dialogue, but there’s more to it than you might expect; such as the power of minimalist characters and what you should know before writing one.

Still from 'Willy's Wonderland (2021)'. Photo credit: Variety


What’s a Silent Protagonist?


Typically, silent protagonists are more common in video games. Since the inception of video games, silent protagonists have been an enduring element. Even as games evolved to include dialogues, many playable characters continued to remain voiceless.


Occasionally, some of these protagonists might offer brief dialogue choices and are limited to a simple "yes" or "no," leaving the burden of conversation on other characters.


The popularity of silent protagonists stems from various factors. Their lack of spoken words places greater emphasis on their actions, enabling players to immerse themselves and perceive the character as their own heroic embodiment. Throughout gaming history, these mute heroes have carved a special niche in the hearts of gamers.


What’s a Silent Protagonist in Film


The protagonist serves as the cornerstone, the pivotal element, and often the most crucial aspect of any fictional work. That's why it becomes peculiar and awe-inspiring when a creator chooses to deprive one of the central characters of their means of communication.


Stylistic reasons may lead a filmmaker to make their lead character silent. Perhaps the character is mute within the story's universe, or it could be a deliberate choice to preserve an air of mystery surrounding the character.


Alternatively, the character might be intended as an avatar for the audience, enabling viewers to project themselves onto the narrative. On the other hand, silence could signify that the character has little to say.


Whichever the reason, having a silent protagonist in cinema represents a daring gamble that could either jeopardize a project or transform it into an extraordinary and unconventional success.


Examples


Hardcore Henry (2015) - Henry is resurrected from death with no memory, and he must save his wife from a telekinetic warlord with a plan to bioengineer soldiers.


Willy’s Wonderland (2021) - A quiet drifter is tricked into a janitorial job at the now-condemned Willy's Wonderland. The mundane tasks suddenly become an all-out fight for survival against wave after wave of demonic animatronics. Fists fly, kicks land, titans clash -- and only one side will make it out alive.


Mute (2018) - A mute bartender goes up against his city's gangsters in an effort to find out what happened to his missing partner.


Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) - A recently laid-off factory worker kidnaps his former boss' friend's daughter, hoping to use the ransom money to pay for his sister's kidney transplant.


What’s a Minimalist Character


Many modern films rely on narrative structure, often at the expense of exploring the full potential of cinematic language. While stories and how they are told remain at the core of filmmaking, a cinematic experience can be achieved by embracing minimalism in plot, character, and story.


When intricate plots and complex ideas are stripped away, it opens the doors for all members of the film crew to delve into uncharted territories of creativity. Actors can embody their characters rather than merely reciting lines of exposition; cinematographers are free to experiment with light and movement; editors can play with the tempo and sequencing of scenes, incorporating voiceovers as they see fit.


By letting go of the unnecessary elements that often clutter a narrative, a simple yet powerful canvas is created for crafting true cinematic works of art. This approach allows for a more profound exploration of the medium, where every aspect of filmmaking becomes an instrument for creative expression.


In this article’s case, a minimalist character is a character without an extravagant background or anything notable that you’d expect in a movie. Some argue it’s a script flaw to have too many minimalist characters, but depending on the film, sometimes they’re necessary.


Benefits of these Characters


Generally speaking, a minimalist or silent character is beneficial if you hope to craft an untraditional narrative. Even if your story is in the art house, most of these characters revolve in the experimental world, such as in a film like Hardcore Henry or Willy’s Wonderland.


That’s not to say you can’t craft a more traditional story with a silent protagonist or a slew of minimalist characters. Do whatever you hope to craft writing-wise, and don’t feel confined by the rules of writing. Many writers fear their work will never come to fruition if they don’t follow a regimen. As long as your grammar and general format are good, do what you want!

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