One of the fundamental and complex parts of characterisation comes from the actions and reactions of your characters – their interactions are constantly evolving throughout the story because they are continually acting and reacting with each other and various events and the story. Without action and reactions, there would be no determinable relationship between any of your characters, and therefore little to give the reader.
Why are character actions/reactions important?
Actions and reactions are great way to reveal character without the need for lots of explanation or large info dumps. As writers, we can show, rather than tell, by virtue of how they respond. Everyone is multifaceted and complex and your characters should be no different.
You can show a reader as much as you want through character revelation; what they do, what they say, and sometimes what they don’t do or don’t say.
The action/reaction equation is complex on many levels, because responses rely entirely on actions, which also rely on catalysts – the very things that set in motion the events that lead to your character to react in various different ways. There is always a reason behind what we do and say.
What made them react – what is the reason?
How do they react?
Why do they react?
Do they react at all?
Reason - Action - Reaction = Character revelation.
Characters respond to other characters and situations in so many ways, and what they do can reveal certain information to the reader that helps them understand your character’s behaviours, personality and motivations. For example, if your character saves a dog from drowning, it tells the reader that the character is caring and kind, maybe a little impetuous, but all without the need to explain this.
If the character reacts angrily to something, like being stuck in a long queue and seeing queue-jumpers, for example, then it shows that the character can easily become annoyed or irritated by the behaviour of others, since queue jumping is a sign of mad manners. On the other hand, if a character doesn’t react, then it shows the reader that they don’t get upset about that kind of impolite behaviour from others, because they are more tolerant and easy going.
Of course, it’s not just actions that create character responses. A character could also react to someone else’s words. Think of real life situations and how we react to other people – what they say to us forms the basis of how we react and respond to them.
The way your character acts and reacts reveals the kind of person your character is. They are complex because actions and responses can be subtle or overt, they can be vocal, they can be silent, and they can even be hidden.
There are many ways a writer can manipulate actions and reactions by using dialogue, direct actions, emotions and internal thoughts. How a writer does it is key to how effective it becomes.
The great thing about dialogue is that is can be manipulated to illicit responses from the reader. A character may talk with passion or anger or heightened emotion…or none at all, and what they say in conversation should draw your reader and engage them.
Of course, what is really interesting is that what your character says in response to others can reveal so much about that character. Not only that, but writers can also engineer conflict from their character’s responses this way. Arguments and disagreements can be powerful; they can provoke heightened or sometimes irrational responses, and in so doing, reveal more about your character to your readers, because what they see is true emotion, not feigned sentiment.
In everyday life we are constantly reacting to others when in conversation. Sometimes we say something funny, sometimes we lash out and say things we don’t mean, sometimes we snap and shout, and sometimes we don’t say anything at all, for fear of saying the wrong thing or because we know we’re at fault.
Sometimes, we stay silent because anger and emotion prevents us, so crafted silences can be just as powerful as conversation. Therefore, what a character doesn’t say can be just as powerful as what he does say. A character might hold back for many reasons – it’s up to the writer to show this to the reader.
Your character can also react to the actions of, or conversations with, other characters by using internal thought. They are another great way of revealing character personality without the need for exposition – they allow the reader to see the character’s true feelings, opinions and emotions.
As an example, a main character may say something in response to another character, but he could be thinking something entirely different. His responding action might be a forced smile, but his thoughts might reveal his silent anger or offence. His true reaction is therefore revealed in thought, not actions, and because the reader is privy to those thoughts, a sense of immediacy will help them connect with the character.
In Part 2 we’ll look at how a character’s direct actions and their emotions affect the dynamics of actions and reactions and overall characterisation within the story.
Next week: Why Character Actions/Reactions Are Important – Part 2