Writers create and bring characters to life in four ways: through action, dialogue, internal thoughts, and description. In order of importance,
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts
Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description
Description Is a Silent Tool
Although discussion will focus on each tool separately, two or more are often joined to enhance and clarify character depth: dialogue blended with movement “beats,” thoughts preceding action, etc.
Characters begin as a skeleton. Many writers make a Character Sketch first, find an appropriate name, age, height, weight, job, world view, along with other traits and possessions—owning a sports car instead of a pick-up truck gives the reader a clearer glimpse of character—before sending their creation on their journey.
Next is time to add flesh to the skeleton to illustrate a character’s unique personality, along with a list of motivations, goals, and of course, a number of conflicts. The four tools accomplish this.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
I am most interested in the protagonist, but even secondary characters, in order to be well-rounded and true, will require the same attention—minus the internal thoughts to spare the dreaded “viewpoint switch.”
What the protagonist does, and why, is the lifeline the writer tosses the reader. When pulled taut, the character’s actions draw the reader ever nearer until the reader is inside the character, experiencing a life previously unknown. The character—and thus, the reader—becomes the hero of your story.
How does the reader gain such intimacy with the character? The first is through the character’s actions.
James Scott Bell in his book, Revision and Self-Editing, explains one way to gain the reader’s sympathy, respect, and pointed view of your protagonist: it’s a screen writer’s term called the Pet-The-Dog-Beat.
To illustrate, Bell uses (among others) the movie, The Fugitive, to describe the method: in the scene where Dr. Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) is on the run, chased by a determined lawman, he’s in the hospital on a mission to prove someone else killed his wife. As a doctor, he notices a patient in distress, and takes precious time to reroute the groaning patient into surgery to save their life.
Kimble’s act to save a less fortunate puts him at risk and the actions submerge him into deeper trouble—a perfect example of character action pushing the plot rather than the weaker reverse.
My last post used an early scene from the Masterpiece Theater production of Poldark where the recipient of the character’s help actually was a dog, which fit nicely, I think, with Bell’s name for this useful little tool.
There are many ways a character’s actions reveal who they are, what they want, and why.
Whether your character is saving a kingdom or helping a friend get a date, heroes tend to be selfless, and their actions (both right and wrong) deepen the reader’s accessibility to their personality.
Heroes are flawed, just like real people. Your character will make decisions prompting action, and many will be either wrong or wrought with difficulties unperceived prior to being “in-the-middle-of-it.” The character’s actions, prompted by moral self-worth, feelings of what is right and/or necessary, are determined by the portrayal you, the writer, provide.
Is your character forthright to a fault, or reserved?
Does he instigate an argument/fight, or maneuver for peaceful resolution?
Do they walk into a crowded room down the center aisle unabashed, or slip in to a nearby wall?
Does she bat her eyes at the handsome bartender, or is her look direct, intense, and unwavering?
How you define your protagonist (coupled with their view of the world) will be executed through the actions.
Consistency is key. In whatever circumstance you plunge your character, ask yourself a set of questions to determine their logical action:
What goal do they want to reach, and what actions will bring about the result they wish (even if they do not succeed)?
Which character flaw is exploited by making the decision and taking action?
How is their action different from the actions of another character? (This will help separate characters to make the protagonist unique by comparison).
What new danger does the current action cause the protagonist?
Answering these types of questions (develop others for your own story and scene) will shine light on your Lead and their heroic nature while highlighting traits that are problematic for their well-being. Keep your hero acting against the world and his own innate tendencies and you will be well on your way to creating a memorable character readers will want to follow.
Next Post: The Making of a Hero — Part Three: Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts
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