This is the fifth in an ongoing series of StoryCrafting/StoryTelling posts I’m publishing for my own benefit; explaining something helps me determine if I’ve truly learned it or am simply parroting what others have offered. I learn my weak spots, what I need to study, et cetera.
Previous offerings include:
- Atmosphere is…
- Character is… (Part 1)
- Character is… (Part 2.1) – Exposition is…
- Character is… (Part 2.2) – Description is…
And note that I’ll update/upgrade/edit these posts as I learn more.
There is a phrase in psychodynamics, “You can not not communicate.”
This is a powerful phrase to me because it is simple, elegant, and oh so true. The individual who stands mute and unmoving in a situation is responding to that situation. That response is a communication. Doesn’t matter what they’re doing, or I should offer “regardless of what they’re doing,” they are communicating their response to that situation.
Action – aka “movement” – is a powerful descriptive, revelatory tool in the author’s kit.
It’s not that a person is moving, it’s how they move. It’s not that a person is doing something, it’s how they’re doing it. Watch people the next time you’re in a mall or grocery store. How are the people dressed? Did they just throw something on or did they take time to present themselves a certain way? Imagine them grooming; do they take their time? Do they take their time to look unimpressive? Do they slap things on and look impressive? What does all that reveal about their character?
How do they walk? Walking is one of the most amazing tells (behavioral giveaways) available. Does someone take long strides or short steps? Do they walk with their feet toe-out or toe-in? Do they lean towards or away from the direction they’re walking? Do they avoid eye contact or do they greet people with a friendly “hello” as they walk along? Each of these employs different biomechanics hence reveals a lot about the individual’s background, childhood, training, education, self-image, …
Action reveals character and that doesn’t mean “action scenes.” An action scene may reveal someone’s abilities and yes, that reveals something about them but if all that’s revealed is that they can handle some action then they’re pretty shallow as a character.
The person who can beat their opponent into a pulp and/or kill them and doesn’t? The fact that they don’t reveals their character, not just their fighting ability. FWIW, I demonstrate how to write believable fight scenes in WRITING REALISTIC HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT SCENES.
Simple actions reveal character better than complex actions. A piano virtuoso’s technique shows their mastery and skill of complex fingerings but how they wash dishes will reveal more about who they are when only the reader is looking. Most piano virtuoso’s train for years if not decades to achieve their level of skill. Not so someone washing their breakfast dishes. The person who finds as much joy in drying a plate as in playing a Two-Part Bach Invention is showing you their inner life. Ditto the reverse. Watch Jack Nicholson’s performance in Five Easy Pieces to get an idea of how subtle action reveals character.
Someone preparing a firearm reveals their level of training, as does someone changing a spark plug, as does someone tuning a guitar. How are they doing it reveals who they are. Do they talk while they’re doing it? To whom? And what do they say? Do they make small motions or large ones?
Reveal character via the unique, individualizing aspects of the common activities. It demonstrates who the person really is. It also demonstrates strengths and flaws that can be exploited later in the story.
Consider The Augmented Man‘s opening paragraph:
Trailer closed his eyes and sat at the end of the bar where the cigarette-burned, cheap black Formica countertop met the wall. He eased himself onto the last stool, tucking into the corner in the dim light, a spider hiding out of sight at the edge of its web. His fingers hovered over the cigarette burns closest to him as if divining their cause, sensing them like small, unhealed wounds, seeing the people involved, learning if each burn was an accident or intentional.
Trailer isn’t doing much in the above and what he is doing is revealing; he closes his eyes, he sits at the end of the bar, a damaged part of a cheap bar, he moves slowly (“He eased himself…”), he withdraws from his surroundings (“tucking into the corner in the dim light“).
There is a hint of danger to come (“a spider hiding out of sight“), and that Trailer is not your average person (“his fingers…divining…sensing…seeing the people involved“).
Lastly, there is a hint of pain, of something unpleasant in Trailer’s past (“unhealed wounds…accident or intentional.”)
What’s most important is that the above is all revealed through Trailer’s sitting on a barstool in a bar, where he sits in the bar, and what he does once he’s seated.
Action defining character.
Let’s take a single line, this one from The Little Flower:
The elk walked strong and proud, his coat showing scars from the many contests he’d had.
Is this a shy creature? Does this elk cower from challenges? Or does he have a clean, pronounced musculature? Does he walk with head up or bowed? Does he have a full rack of antlers or are they broken or perhaps not grown in yet?
And all because “walked strong and proud…showing scars form the many contests…”
Again, action defining character.
Is Canis Major‘s Iggie comfortable with himself and his appearance?
A mirror on the wall next to his desk echoed his movements. All the walls in his house had mirrors: mirrors framed in gold, mirrors framed in window panes, hand-held mirrors, mirrors simple and ornate; every room had at least one. He gazed into this one, opened his eyes wide and stared into them. Large, brown eyes stared back. Eyes a little too large, a little too far apart, with pupils a little too large. He rocked back and his focus changed to his nose, too thin on top with nostrils too wide on the bottom. He smiled, his face growing light and his lips parting to show strong, even, white teeth. He abruptly opened his mouth until it became a mucus laden cavern in the mirror, leaned closer, and inspected his teeth, one by one, finally running his tongue over them like a barber testing a razor’s edge, and closing his mouth. Next he studied his narrow, dark-skinned, clean-shaven face, the thick brown-black hairs framing his high forehead and peering out from his open collared shirt.
He is meticulous (he inspects his features in detail) but not admiringly (gazed…stared…rocked…abruptly…testing…inspected…peering).
And again, action defining character.
Here is how Empty Sky‘s Earl Pangiosi character is introduced:
Earl Pangiosi sat in the Empire Builder’s Superliner Snack Coach’s upper level, a pillow behind his head and a blanket covering his legs, peering through dark, wraparound sunglasses at people’s reflections in the round, full length domed windows. When someone nodded off, he’d dip down his glasses and peer at them briefly, purse his lips then shove the glasses back up his face. Once in a while he’d catch his own red-haired, high colored reflection as he followed people walking past.
Does Earl like to be comfortable? (“a pillow behind his head and a blanket covering his legs“)
Does Earl like to interact with people? (“peering through dark, wraparound sunglasses at people’s reflections“…”When someone nodded off, he’d dip down his glasses and peer at them briefly, purse his lips then shove the glasses back up his face.”
Does Earl think he’s better than other people? (I’ll leave this one for you to answer as a comment)
My last example is also from Empty Sky, in the Joni Levis chapter:
She took the lollipop out of her mouth and jabbed it like a pointer at the vacant side of the bed.
Is Joni happy?
Revealing character via action should start as soon as the character is introduced and continue through that character’s life-cycle (or story-cycle). Main and Primary characters are revealed through lots of actions because such characters are necessarily complex. Even then, highly contradictory actions need to be explained/justified so the reader accepts the character. Someone who’s tender and gracious to everyone except one person needs to have some reason for treating that one person so differently from the rest, and the reader needs to know that reason. Consider Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather is capable of both extreme violence and extreme love. How those character traits are carried through from Vito Corleone to his son, Michael are central to the Godfather Saga. Watch and read how these attributes are differently demonstrated by both characters.
Characters demonstrate internal (psychological) change when they change their daily habits. Most people are recognized by their habitual patterns. Phrases like “Oh, he always hangs his coat up first” or “He always cuts his entire steak up before he eats any” or “he never washes before going to bed” all define a character’s personality.
This character may look down on people who don’t immediately hang their coat up or who only cut what they can fit on their fork. The phrase “He never washes before going to bed” can be a pejorative.
But when that character stops hanging up their coat first or doesn’t cut their entire steak before eating any or washes before going to bed? Other characters will notice the change and comment. If not other characters, the character his or herself will note the change. And always, habitual action is exploitable.
I wrote in Character is… (Part 1) “In The Augmented Man, one character knows the protagonist, Trailer, has changed because Trailer no longer maintained Tank discipline. Trailer’s change in habit provides Donaldson a clue to what’s happening, what to expect.
Care for a critique of your writing? Let me know.