By: Les Edgerton
The writer who can master the art and craft of defining their characters by their actions is going to be the author whose work gets read.
lots and lots
of folks… Enough, hopefully, that you’ll never again have to say to someone
about the novel you’ve written that it’s “only available in my room.” By
Most of us as fiction writers flesh out our characters with the use of description, via dialogue, by the interior thoughts of characters and by similar methods. All of these are good techniques and work well in the short story and novel.
However, if the author ignores the use of using physical actions to help create their characters and to also show how they’ve evolved due to the events that happen along the way in the story (that character arc us writing teachers are always talking about), they’re missing what can be the most powerful tool of all.
This is an area where we can really make our novels come alive and impact the reader on a
The use of description is perhaps the weakest of the novelist’s tools in terms of character description. What of the following makes more of an impact in the reader’s mind? To read: “Elizabeth was an arthritic old woman.” Or, to read: Elizabeth labored up the stairs, a painful step at a time. She paused at each step, grasped the handrail with both hands and forced her ancient legs up yet another step.
The second example wins, hands-down. Why? Because we “see” an action the character takes and because we see it
an emotional impact on us. In the
first example, we’re “told” what the character is (arthritic). Doesn’t make
much of an impression at all. Not even close to the impression we get when we
see her inching painfully up the stairs. happening it has
This is important enough that I’ll say it again: Characters are defined best and on a deeper level by their actions. As are their character arcs. You know, that deal where the character emerges at the end of the story a different person than when the story began as a result of all they’d gone through during the course of the tale.
Why? Because they experience what the character does and what the character experiences at the same time the character does. They’re not being “told” this character has undergone a sea change and asked to take it on faith—they “see” it with their own eyes, and are therefore convinced to a degree not remotely possible with the author “telling”
there’s been a change via their
thoughts or any of the other aforementioned techniques. them
A movie that illustrates brilliantly how all this can be accomplished through the character’s actions is screenwriter Callie Khouri’s Thelma & Louise. It’s one of those rare movies that provide many, many teaching moments that can be valuable to fiction writers.
. . .
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