Letting Action Define Your Characters

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I just finished a book (which shall remain nameless) for my first Australian book club meeting and despite all its accolades and awards I couldn’t believe how totally uninvested I was in any of the characters. I’ve been mulling over the reasons for this ever since I skimmed my way to the finish yesterday and this morning I woke to find I knew exactly what the author’s problem was – she had failed to let her characters be defined by action.

In many ways this is a classic literary novel mistake because, lets face it, in a mystery or a thriller there’s no way an editor would let us get away with having passive characters who spent half their time engaged in inner monologues about how they felt!

We have blogged a lot on this topic but never has the reason been made so clear to me as it was after finishing this book. Although there were some dramatic moments and a terrific historical backdrop, none of these had any resonance as the characters seemed to be little more than distant, passive observers to all that was occurring in the book. So I compiled a short list for myself, as a reminder of what not to do, when I feel the literary urge coming on (and believe me, getting pseudo-literary is one of my many failings as a writer:)!)

1. Rein in those inner monologues and angst. While okay in small doses this book diluted the power of any angst-defining moments by having the main character ruminate ad nauseam. It would have been far better for the character to have been confronted by his past – in a direct and visceral way so the reader could have seen (rather than being told) how this impacted the character.

2. Cut the literary bull. Too much pondering, pretty metaphors and dream sequences drag a story down (and this book had enough of these to sink the Titanic). Far better to let the plot move the character through his or her emotions.

3. Let action/reactions tell the story not the author. In this book I felt that as a reader I was being told too much by the author – to the point where I didn’t see the characters as real. They became little more than a literary device for the author to tell me her clever observations on the societal issues of yesteryear (yikes!).

4. Insist the plot drive character development. As far as I could tell I didn’t witness any real character development or change, I was merely told that it had happened by the author.

5. Ensure each character is true to life not a literary contrivance. In this book almost all the character flaws were described but never actually witnessed. Once again, without action or plot points to reveal these I was never invested as a reader.

So if you had to do a list on using action to define characters what else would you add (or change on my list). Have you read any book recently that you have found similarly lacking? And why do authors of so-called literary books often forget the basics that we, in our field, would never be able to get away with?!

14 thoughts on “Letting Action Define Your Characters

  1. It ties in to what you’ve already stated but one error I’ve made in my own past work is letting my character be too reactive instead of being proactive. It can really put distance between the reader and the character.

  2. I face the same thing BK and I really noticed it in this book – so it was a timely reminder to me not to do it! Reactive can be boring – characters being proactive can really drive the narrative.

  3. Great list, Clare. I particularly like #4. When I teach characterization, I stress that true character is only revealed in crisis (plot). We wouldn’t know what Scarlett is made of (truly) without the Civil War, etc. So let’s see that rendered, dramatically, on the page.

  4. I agree, great list. Unfortunately I don’t have your patience. Unless there is an important reason for me to read a book like that, I most likely would put it down after only a few pages.

    I like books with characters that don’t simply think about doing things, but actually do them.

  5. I am an IT guy who suffers from…no strike that… enjoys both a relatively short attention span combined with a sometimes too fast imagination and physically hyper-active energy level. If you have ever seen the British TV series IT Crowd, mix all of the main characters and give them a generally cheerful outlook and you have someone like me.
    Therefore books with too much narrative or inner monologue do lose my interest very fast. Sadly I am in the midst of one such book right now. I really wanted to like it because the writer liked mine, and gave me a good review, but while it starts with action, that action is followed by chapter after chapter of slow moving legal/political conversation and descriptive narrative that is almost totally devoid of action. Unlike many readers I am sometimes able to overlook grammar / technical issues if the story is full of logical and fast moving action. But no matter how grammatically correct a book is I cannot force myself to slug through a slow pace.

    Give me a burst of action a la Frederick Forsyth or Alex Berensen or if they’re not available a dose of Dr. Seuss and the Muppets.

    just finished watching the entire 1st season of Muppets from 1976…man, I started to feel like I was 8 years old again

  6. Sounds like what my friend Lisa refers to as a “Borgeous” book- great writing, but boring as hell. I’m an action girl myself, and I’ve always found incessant navel-gazing (both real and fictional) to be deathly dull. Good rules, Clare.

  7. Boregous – love it! That was exactly what this book was! James – that was what was so sad, there were some great crisis points which could have really moved the story along but they were dealt with so descriptively that the character never got to be engaged in them! Douglas – as it was a book club book I felt compelled to finish it (if it hadn’t have been I would have put it down after about chapter 3!) Basil – slugging through a snail-paced book is deadly isn’t it?! I am now desperate for a great action packed read – which thankfully in the mystery/thriller genre we have in truckloads!

  8. I like to put in one or more secondary characters who act as foils for the main character–they can reflect different facets of a certain characteristic. For example, if the main character has a problem with trust, she might have a friend who falls in love at the drop of a hat.

  9. That’s a good idea Kathryn – having a secondary character that helps bring out another character’s flaws can really help shape realistic characters.

  10. Great post, and very thought-provoking, thanks. I’m looking at this exact issue in my revisions of my MS at the moment, and found your tips very useful.


  11. Actually, I know everyone loves it, but Harry Potter was that kind of book for me. Sort of. I didn’t care about the characters. I felt distant from them. Too much narrative summary I think.

  12. Those are all good tips. Newbies often tend to make these same mistakes as I see when critiquing manuscripts. “Show, don’t tell” is still the best advice. So is Cut the Backstory. Weave it into the action. Nothing slows the pacing more than paragraphs of events that happened in the past. Keep the story moving forward.

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