How Can Shy Characters Steal the Spotlight?

I’m going to say it straight: shy characters can steal the spotlight just as well as any extraverted character. Oh yes. And all you need to do it is understanding. Let’s start with reactions that are realistic, emotive and visceral at four levels.

We’ve all felt shy at times. Some people can brush it off and approach the situation with confidence, whether real or faked. In others, shyness can be crippling.

While introverted characters may not be the most charismatic and attention-grabbing, there’s more to them than the reserved exterior might suggest.

What exactly is shyness? Psychologically speaking, it’s feeling uncomfortable or inhibited when in a situation that involves interacting with others, which then interferes with your goals, such as getting to know other people at a party or doing well in a job interview.

Shyness can be an integral part of your personality, meaning it’s there across all situations and is long-lasting, or it can appear or disappear depending on the situation.

What are some of the signs and symptoms of shyness? Henderson and Zimbardo separate them into four categories: cognitive, affective, physiological and behavioural levels of shyness.


Shyness at this level features excessive negativity when evaluating yourself—in other words, you have a disproportionate number of negative thoughts about yourself. This can include:

  • Seeing yourself as weak compared to others.
  • Believing that you, as a shy person, don’t know the ‘right’ way to act, whereas others do.
  • This negative bias can extend to your self-concept (how you think about yourself) and lead to the belief that no one will find you attractive or likeable because you are inadequate in social situations.

At the affective level, negative emotions are heightened. These can include feelings of:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Embarrassment
  • Shame
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety

These emotions often lead to the negative thoughts found at the cognitive level mentioned above, or happen as a result of negative thoughts. It works both ways.

Finding this post interesting? You’ll also enjoy Design a Personality: The Psychology Behind Your Characters’ Emotions.


From a physiological standpoint, symptoms of shyness can include:

  • A racing heart
  • Sweating
  • A dry mouth
  • Blushing
  • Feeling nervous, faint or sick
  • Feeling detached from the self

The physical effects of shyness can bring about the emotions of the affective level, which in turn can cause the negativity in the cognitive level. Alternatively, the negative thoughts might come first, then the emotions, and then the bodily response to them.


Finally, the behavioural level of shyness symptoms can manifest in several ways:

  • Not looking people in the eye
  • Speaking quietly
  • Problems with speech (e.g., stuttering, being tongue-tied, speaking too quickly)
  • Inhibited or nervous behaviour (e.g., touching the face or hair self-consciously, fewer facial expressions)
  • Moving very little so as not to draw attention
  • Avoiding situations that cause shyness or fear

As you’ve probably guessed, the behavioural reactions to shyness can cause physical, then emotional, then cognitive responses, or the reverse could be true. Negative thoughts can also cause behaviours associated with shyness, completing the circle of levels.

Applying Theory to Fiction

Character building

Is your character shy? If so, first consider how consistent her shyness is. Is it a stable trait in her, felt regardless of situation, or does it only happen in certain situations (e.g. during family gatherings because of something embarrassing that happened to her at one previously)?

Which cognitive, affective, physiological and behavioural symptoms does your character experience and how acute are they? Is she someone who blushes when feeling shy or does she feel dizzy and start trembling? Does she try to fade into the background through minimal body movement or avoid situations that make her shy altogether?

Character arc

Once you know the symptoms of your character’s shyness and have determined whether it’s part of her personality or because of something that happened to her in that situation in the past, you can chart out a way for her to change.

If she has lots of negative thoughts about herself and her social competency, overcoming these might be part of her development throughout the story. What might happen to her, or who might help her, to push back these negative thoughts? Who might teach her to be more confident?


What kind of problems might arise from having a shy character? If she’s only shy in certain situations, how might her friends or family misunderstand this and think her actions out-of-character or inappropriate? If she’s chronically shy, how might this impact on her life and cause her problems? Consider the effect of her shyness on the world around her, her interpersonal relationships, and herself.

Beyond Being ‘Just Shy’

If shyness, anxiety and inhibition are turned up to the max for your character, so much so that it causes major negative repercussions in her life, she may have avoidant personality disorder. Check out the diagnosis criteria, measure your character against them and delve into how it affects her in her day-to-day life in the accompanying downloadable workbook.