Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker

A novel won’t draw me in unless I start caring jodie-renner1-Small5about the protagonist and worrying about what’s going to happen to her – in other words, until I get emotionally engaged in the story. And it’s the same for most readers, I think. For me to warm up to the protagonist, he has to have some warmth and vulnerability and determination, some hopes and insecurities and fears.

As readers, to identify with and bond with the protagonist – and other characters – we need to see and feel their emotions and reactions to people and events around them. When the character feels and reacts, then they come alive for us and we get emotionally invested and start to worry about them and cheer for their small victories. Once you have your readers fretting about your hero and rooting for him, they’re hooked.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them, sympathize with them, and care about their plight.”

Show those feelings.

So bring your characters to life by showing their deepest fears, worries, frustrations, hopes and jubilations. If readers see your hero pumped, scared, angry, or worried, they’ll feel that way, too. And a reader who is feeling strong emotions is a reader who is turning the pages.

And engage the readers’ senses, too, so they feel like they’re right there, by showing us not only what the character is seeing, but what they’re hearing, smelling, touching, sensing, and even tasting.

Show their physical reactions, too.

Besides showing us your character’s emotional reactions, show their physical reactions as well to what’s happening to them.

Show the stimulus before the response, and show the reactions in their natural order.

To avoid reader confusion and annoyance, be sure to state the cause before the effect, the stimulus before the response, the action before the reaction.

And to mirror reality, it’s important to show your character’s visceral reaction to a situation first, before an overt action or words. And show involuntary thought-reactions or word-reactions, like a quick “ouch” or swear word, before more reasoned thought processes and decision-making.

As Ingermanson & Economy put it, “Here’s a simple rule to use: Show first whatever happens fastest. Most often, this means you show interior emotion first, followed by various instinctive actions or dialogue, followed by the more rational kinds of action, dialogue, and interior monologue.”
 
And don’t skip those first steps! Remember, we’re inside that character’s head and body, so you deepen their character and draw us closer to them by showing us what they’re feeling immediately inside – those involuntary physical and thought reactions that come before controlled, civilized outward reactions.

As Bickham points out, it’s important to imitate reality by showing the reactions in the order they occur. You may not show all of these reactions, but whichever ones you choose, show them in this order.

First, show the stimulus that has caused them to react.

Then show some or all of these responses, in this order:

1. The character’s visceral response
– adrenaline surging, pulse racing, stomach clenching, heart pounding, mouth drying, flushing, shivering, cold skin, tense muscles, sweating, blushing, shakiness, etc.

2. Their unconscious knee-jerk physical action – yelling, gasping, crying out, snatching hand or foot away from source of heat or pain, striking out, etc.

3. Their thought processes and decision to act

4. Their conscious action or verbal response

Showing your characters’ feelings and responses will bring them to life on the page for the readers and suck readers deeper into your story world, your fictive dream.

But don’t go overboard with it — you don’t want your protagonist to come across as gushing or hysterical or neurotic. It’s important to strike a balance so the readers want to relate to and empathize with your main character, not get annoyed or disgusted with her and quit reading.

So how do we strike that balance? How do we as writers find the emotions to bring our characters to life, but also find a happy medium between flat, emotionless characters that bore us and hysterical drama queens or raging bulls that make us cringe?

Bickham advises us to consider how we’ve felt in similar circumstances, then overwrite first, and revise down later. “I would much prefer to see you write too much of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later…. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people, will never be accepted by any reader.”

Do you have any techniques that work for bringing out your characters’ reactions and feelings? And for ensuring that you don’t go off the deep end with it?

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Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), and her handy, clickable e-resources, Spelling on the Go– Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips and Grammar on the Go, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com

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34 thoughts on “Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive

  1. Great information, Jodie. I particularly like the natural order of responses to stimuli.I like to write long shots in terms of time and distance, and I’ve fought that in my current project. I need to go back and look at feelings. Thank you for the thought-provoking post and for the references.

    And, Joe, I did enjoy this post.

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    • Thanks, Lance. This is all tied up with deep point of view, or close third-person POV, too, which engages readers much more than distant, omniscient POV. Makes us feel like we’re right there, which is the whole idea.

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  2. Excellent tips, Jodie! In my first-person POV stories, my character does a lot of sparring with her (now, ex) boyfriend. I usually add one last step in the flow of emotion–her reaction to what just occurred. Usually, that reaction is berating herself for having delivered a snarky zinger at the poor guy!

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  3. Great post, Jodie. This is the area where I struggle the most. Must be a man thing. Body language is what I attempt for most occasions. My character will look down at his open hands, clench his fists, kick a puppy (okay I’ve never used that one). I like the interior dialogue, but you can’t overdo that either. If it looks like my character has too many voices in his head, we start to doubt his sanity.

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    • Seems like you’re definitely on the right track, Ron. Body language is a great way to convey feelings! And it works really well for letting the POV character (and readers) know how other characters are feeling without head-hopping.

      I encourage you to show your guy’s immediate inner thought-reactions to something, like a fast curse word. (Or maybe you already do that.)

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  4. Oh, and I also make sure to include a mention of the visible reaction of other character(s) in the scene, as observed by the POV character. Then I go back and ‘cluster’ the flow, so it doesn’t read like a game of emotional Ping Pong! 🙂

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    • Absolutely, Kathryn. Showing the body language of others, as well as their facial expressions, tone of voice, words, and actions, completes the picture for the readers and keeps us engaged in the dynamics of the interaction.

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  5. Great post, Jodie. I love the tip about overwriting the emotion, then possibly revising to tone it down later. I find this particularly helpful when writing male vs female characters, to capture emotional differences. You can also change up emotional traits between characters to make them distinct by using this write then revise technique.

    Great advice…and timely. I plan on revisiting the intro to my WIP. Thanks again.

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  6. It’s great seeing the proper progression for these reactions. If I want to get to know a character better, I’ll interview her. That gives me a feeling for how she talks and reacts to other people.

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  7. Thanks, Nancy! I love your idea about interviewing your character!

    Another good technique is to journal in your character’s private, secret diary. Just use stream-of-consciousness and let their feelings flow about their situation and others in their world.

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  8. Jodie –
    Outstanding!
    I recall this topic from ‘Sizzles’ (one of many great sections) but seeing it again refreshes it in my mind. You have a special talent for distilling and communicating the essence of craft.

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Tom! And it was a real pleasure working with you on your excellent medical thriller, Nerve Damage! I look forward to seeing it in print soon!

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  9. Hi Jodie,

    It’s always nice to hear from you! (Thanks, Joe, for bringing Jodie here today.)

    I just finished reading PLUM ISLAND by Nelson DeMille, and he does such a great job with this. Interestingly, it occurred to me that DeMille didn’t offer quite enough details to allow me to create a visual image of the main character, John Corey. Normally, that would be a problem for me, but DeMille does such an outstanding job with his characters that I didn’t miss a beat.

    I have a bit of a dilemma with my WIP, trying to decide whether it should be written in first- or third-person POV. Third person seems easier and safer, but first seems to offer better ways to accomplish what you outlined in this post.

    I’m grateful for you and the experts here on TKZ as I figure it all out!

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  10. Great post! I’m still trying to wrap my brain around using all five senses as well as cause and effect in emotions, actions, and reactions for my characters. I appreciate your advice to overwrite first, then trim. That makes a lot of sense.

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    • Thanks, Christina. No need to show all 5 senses all the time! That could be too much. But try to show more than just sight and sound whenever it’s appropriate and enhances the scene.

      If there’s only one takeaway from my post today, I’d say it’s to show your character’s immediate inner (or outer) reactions to things, whether it’s a swear word or an Omigod! or What a jerk! or You wish! or whatever. These short, emphasized thought-reactions should be in italics.

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  11. Hi Diane,

    Thanks for dropping by again to comment. I didn’t know you were a writer as well as an editor! I just referred a potential client to you.

    Diane, I just happen to have another blog post up right now on the pros and cons of first-person POV. I highly recommend you persevere with third-person, as first-person is actually very difficult to do really well, and fraught with potential pitfalls. Check out my blog post on this at http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog.php.

    Good luck with this! I look forward to reading the results!

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  12. AS a fairly new author I have found this post both interesting and useful. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise. There is so much in here I can use to make my book even better.

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    • Thanks, Wendy! If you haven’t yet read my book, Style That Sizzles, which is full of great advice for fiction writers, I’ll be glad to enter your name in the draw to win an e-copy!

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  13. A lot of great information here, Jodi – thank you.

    The stimulus-response cycle is similar to what Dwight Swain covered in one of his books. He also makes the point that if you don’t care about your protagonist and her story, why should anybody else?

    I like the sequencing information and, happily, will have a chance to put it to work immediately. Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

    And I just added Maass’ book to my reading list. I think I’m only about 20 books behind at this point.

    Thanks again.

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  14. Thanks, Paul. I must read some of Dwight Swain’s books. And your statement about your protagonist and her story is so true. I also am behind on my TBR list, when it comes to writing craft! There’s always more to learn, isn’t there!

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  15. Thank you Jodie for your wonderful tips on character. I especially found it helpful to keep in mind the order of a character’s reactions in response to a situation. As I revise my first novel I’ll pay close attention to these things. I’d also love to work through your book. My style is still in development!

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  16. We’ve drawn the name of our winner for the free e-copy of Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power. Congratulations to our last commenter, Kim Kendall! I hope you enjoy the book, Kim!

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  17. Great article, Jodie. One tip about body language that I learned a long while ago is: folk show their responses first in their body language but only after in their words. ‘He gulped. “I don’t believe it,” he said.’ That’s more convincing than “I don’t believe it.” He gulped. Problem is, do our readers understand these subtleties? 🙂

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  18. This is a great help with regard to concentrating on the order in which things occur. It makes it real. Thanks!

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