Character in Action - A Discussion In Communicating Ideas part 2

8 years ago | G.S. Williams (Member)

So I'm going to let the Symbolism portion of this discussion be its own thread, in case others want to contribute. Here, I wish to start a thread about how characters' actions signal themes to readers and define personalities, arcs, and themes.

My writing professor (like many) always said "show, don't tell.". He felt audiences could infer much from action without needing description to spell it out. My favourite example has always been "he held the door for the elderly woman with the groceries" versus "he was nice.". One sentence creates a scene you can picture, and define for yourself what his character is like. The other declares it, leaving less up to the reader.

Small actions can tell you as much about a person as a big one. I'm going to use Disney movies for references because they are very mainstream - most people know them so there won't be much in the way of spoilers. Plus their basis in fairy tales makes them heavy on traditional, known symbols, and plots are straightforward. Other examples can go into nuances later.

Ariel the Little Mermaid shows her inquisitive, adventurous and independent character by collecting human things - which leads inevitably to conflict with her father because that's against the rules. Her character as a person won't leave it at that - she has to push limits, explore boundaries. So Triton's adamance about rules leads to Ariel going to the sea witch, and turning human. The whole plot occurs because of their personality traits.

Likewise in the beginning of Mulan - she is a lateral thinker who comes up with unique solutions to problems, as evidenced by setting up a puppy to chase a bone and drag chickenfeed around the yard. She struggles with the traditional roles of her culture but ultimately uses her problem solving skills to replace her father in the army, succeed at training camp and defeat the Huns. The seeds of that ability are shown in her early scene speeding up the chore of feeding chickens.

The themes of the Little Mermaid and Mulan both have to do with the individual finding the place they belong, because they are different from their environs.

Harry Potter (not Disney but well-known) gets a lot of description - The Boy who Lived and the Chosen One. But the first action that really shows his character is with the Sorting Hat - choosing not to be Slytherin. The Hat recognizes his courage and his desire to take the harder road of "good" over the easy road to success through evil. Throughout the series he chooses the right path over temptation, starting with the Philosopher's Stone in the Mirror of Erised. Dumbeldore states the theme of. The series after the death of Cedric Diggory - "the choice is coming between what is easy and what is right.". Harry lives out that choice constantly.

These small actions are early indicators of the bigger picture. They define the characters and the roles they will play in the story.

Do your characters show seeds that blossom into personality traits? What relationship does that have with the themes of your story?

Read responses...


  1. Kess (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I try to do this in everything I write: showing personalities through actions, what they do and don't do, what they say and don't say. Just saying what a person is like (telling) isn't anywhere near as fun or convincing, and considering the blogfic style I write, I have to be careful to avoiding telling too often or too much.

    I write character-driven stories, and I love to watch their journeys, so the personalities of the people involved drive the story forward. I like to make sure that character actions have good groundings, so setting up the right reader expectations about characters is something I make an effort to do, particularly if a character is involved in a plot twist. I enjoy using the gaps as much as the filling, because what a person doesn't do can be as telling as what they do. Silences speak. And I like to have a character come into view organically, so that from the first moment we meet them, the reader gets a feeling for who they are.

    I talked a bit (or possibly a lot) about how I've characterised the ship in Starwalker in the thread on symbolism, so I won't go into a lot of it here. As a character who is essentially a voice coming out of the walls (for at least the first book and a half - omg spoiler), she was a bit of a challenge. Showing her personality wasn't too hard, because most of the story is her talking to her own log and effectively recording her thought processes. It's in her interactions with the crew that the more interesting stuff happens.

    Her major traits are set up pretty early on in the story, like the time when she's worrying in her log about a particular crewmember and is interrupted by that crewmember asking her why a robot is hugging his leg. Her self-control slips when her crew are in danger and has unexpected results (her robot drones doing stuff like that is a pretty mild example, compared to some of the later stuff). It's pretty much a pattern for her.

    What relationship does it have with the theme of the story? Well, the first book of Starwalker is called Identity, as it's focussed on who the ship is (and how she is who she is). After that, the story expands into other areas, but the characters don't stop developing, and in Book 4 (where the story is now), Starry is still trying to figure out who she is and what she's for (though the reasons for her questions have changed somewhat).

    I never thought about it this way before, but in the Apocalypse Blog, the main character is set up very early on in her reactions to the destruction and violence going on around her. At the beginning, She hangs around in a dangerous area to help with rescue efforts, even though she's not trained and has really only good intentions (and working limbs) on her side. It's not a conscious choice for her; she follows her instincts, though more self-awareness follows later. That pretty much sets the tone for her character for the rest of the story: she's more interested in saving people rather than looking after herself at others' expense, and a lot of the story is about Faith and her group struggling to not succumb to the chaos and selfishness of a post-apocalyptic situation.

    I love characters. They're so much fun. And occasionally crunchy.

  2. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I try and pull this off, but it always feels odd to me, I think because of how my story is written. Since it's all from Gecko's POV, I hear it's great for showing how off he is. Not quite so easy to show other characters, unless he's spying. Even then, he'd have to spy on them actually acting, as opposed to listening in on conversations and rifling through their underwear.

    As for Gecko's actions, I feel it focuses too much on that as is. I need to work on my non-action segments.

  3. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    That reminds me, catch up on WDIR.

    I have issue with writing this just because... I always seem to have obvious set up. It seems hard to write actions that are important in the long run without waving a neon sign saying PAY ATTENTION TO THIS! I've actually had an easier time with it in comic scripting, because I can add in some visual description for the artist to put in, and have that visual cue hanging out without being obvious until later. With straight prose, unless you go for eh AE:Tales of Mu style of telling EVERYTHING, its hard to make things not stand out, you know?

  4. Syphax (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I honestly didn't put nearly as much forward thinking into my characters. I kind of just came up with some personality traits and went from there. They grew and developed as I wrote on. It wasn't planned out, I just had characters react how I thought they would react. For example, one character I'm trying to set up as violent is dealing with two annoying identical twins. After so much annoyance, she punches one in the eye. Then she can tell the two apart based on the black eye. Another character, (one of the twins, actually) stabs a guy because it was faster and easier, rather than take a couple minutes to disarm him.

    I do enjoy writing internal monologue, because it lets me show a character. One character looks impassive, but on the inside he's a seething cauldron of discontent, that sort of thing. I let the plot sort of write itself from there. Jackass causes one conflict. The nice character becomes the moral center of the team after a while, and so on.

    As for themes, I'm just trying to write a fun story. I don't enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire for it's themes of showcasing how different women adapt and thrive in a very patriarchal society or the relations of betrayal and family. I read it because I get to read about dragons, and witty dwarfs, and people murderkilling other people, and all of the unique characters and cultures who eventually get murderkilled.

  5. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Worm spoilers below (I think everyone here has either read or tried & dismissed Worm, though):

    I like to use a framework when brainstorming. When I was starting Worm, I didn't want characters to sound too similar, so I differentiated them by giving each one a different role in a conversation. Tattletale would be the one who knew stuff and figured stuff out, Grue took point, Regent snarked, and so on. The same with actions. Later on, as I clarified characters further, I built around these central points. This served the reader, in part, the same way that it served me. To easily categorize the characters for future reference.

    In developing the characters to give them some depth, I knew that each character had a dilemma that was central to them. I kind of borrowed from Erikson's stages of development to figure out what these dilemmas were. One character faced a crisis of trust. Another a crisis of ethics (both work and moral). A third character had a crisis of regret. A fourth sought intimacy. Another sought to find a place in the world. The protagonist had the quintessential crisis for teenagers - one of identity.

    The first actions these characters take helps to shed light on who they are and how they approach life. Tattletale reaches out, Grue shows a little too much openness and trust, Rachel reacts to the introduction of a new member of the group with unreasonable violence (the unreasonable part hinting in turn to future developments).

    Aisha, shows up later, and it's perhaps a little less obvious in execution, as my writing evolved. Her initial scenes where she's making a mark on the world. Quite literally - she's seen dragging an axe along the wall as she walks, damaging it. She's obnoxious and in-your face. When we see a segment of her real life, she's in her mother's apartment, her mother and mother's friends oblivious to her presence as they carry on with a drug binge. She tries to stop her mother by interfering, using her power to be undetected, and ultimately gives up. When we see her go to her room, we glimpse her life, and even there, she notes that her room smells like urine and sex - it's not even her own space. The only thing that can be called hers is her closet, where she's kept everything from when she was a child, her closet layered with belongings stretching back to her early grade school days. She's so desperate to make an impact and forge a place for herself that she puts herself at mortal risk, going up against some damn scary people, all alone. Throughout the story, she's remains focused on memories, mementos, making a mark. It even becomes pathological, when you look at what she does to the bad guys, going a little too far, mentally scarring them, marking them. This isn't a crisis that's resolved, exactly. Later on, we see that she's found a group, she has a place in that group that's ultimately hers, she's calmer (if still obnoxious, snarky and over the top in what she does to her enemies), but she's still focused on memories. You could say that she's only halfway there, or you could say she's making a place for others now that she's found that place for herself in the world.

    This wasn't something I plotted in detail. I had only a sense of what it was that drove her, and these things fell into place. I look back, and I can dig up details that make sense in retrospect.

    Kurt Vonnegut writes, "Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of." - I think this is key. The stories where a character feels vague are often the same stories where there isn't enough conflict to push them out of their comfort zone. If we see a character in their day to day life and they're sweet and charming, but the moment they have a bad day they snap and unleash a spiteful verbal tirade, alluding to reams of pent up frustration and loathing? That can say an awful lot about them. You can't use actions alone to describe a character, but you can tie actions to context to flesh them out.

    If you're having trouble drawing attention something in a quiet, meaningful way, try reframing it, shaping the context. A small action may mean nothing (or seem obvious) in a vacuum, but set it in a scene, and it can mean very different things.

  6. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I'm glad I've managed the Chekhov's Gun stuff pretty well. Or at least, I think they count as guns. Like when Gecko early on dismisses how he powers his armor like "I don't want to talk about that."

    The fact that he doesn't talk about it and its existence come into play, with at least one clue provided when heroes steal his suit and have an electricity-generating cape use it.

    Since my narrative isn't necessarily set in stone, I wrote out a list of potential arcs (roughly 1 month long), greater arcs (two or three months long) and super arcs (overall conflict of the season). Looking back on them, I can't even remember what one or two of them were supposed to be about, but I've kept the super arcs in mind enough to already load a few of them.

    It's not always about making sure you include this one obscure, out-of-place detail, though. Sometimes, you have to look back and go "Was there anything I wrote about that might help set this up? Some minor detail, some joke, something like that?" The joke part is a good way to do it, I hear.

    An example of the joke was in this other, currently unedited set of stories I once wrote for a character who transformed into something best thought of as a mix of the hulk and superman, but only if he injects himself with a certain catalyst. He winds up working with another hero briefly who has Doctor in his name. To joke about how all these heroes go by doctor, I had the character ask what kind of doctor he is, figuring I'd go with something that would seem ridiculous for a crimefighter to have as their civilian doctorate. His answer "Dermatology!"

    A joke. But later on, the unpowered enemy of this big guy catches him while he's in his human form, deprives him of the catalyst, sticks the hero in a copy of the villain's own costume, and calls the cops on him. Why not ditch the costume? Because he put some sort of glue in a costume consisting of boots, pants, jacket, and gas mask. Not something you can easily hide.

    Guess who gets him out of the costume glued to his skin? The super who happened to be a dermatologist.

    On another tack, one thing I enjoy is that I can change up the narrative a lot depending on Gecko's moods. If he's in an introspective mood, he'll do some introspecting. If he's angry, he'll cuss. If he's going a bit cuckoo, he'll lay out how a story about transgender unicorns justifies him beating a man to death with a block of cheese. It not only emphasizes how he feels on that update, it also helps to prime the readers for the mood of the update. It winds up as a little bit of a loop.

    Perhaps most prominently in my story, I like to disabuse readers of the notion that this is a story that must become about redemption. Gecko may have good points when he claims to have a specific motivation. He can do good things (he saves an average of one holiday per year). But no matter how nice he is, he's always dangerous and he will never be a hero.

    Which works for me. I get to use him for all sorts of things. Comedy. Action. Parody. I even use him to comment on social issues as someone who wants to upend the entire system, which allows a little bit of wish fulfillment that some people might enjoy. I'm not talking wish fulfillment like "Kill all Republicans!" but more like "Kill that rich teen that got no time for killing people because of the 'affluence' defense."

    I like to let people do stupid things a lot, as well. More realistic to me. Worm felt to me like people opposed to each other were always enacting some plan that made sense to them and what they knew. Instead, I have characters all the time who do things for a reason of "I don't know, seemed like a good idea at the time." or who don't think things through at all. Some people try for brilliant plans, but they have to worry less about counter-plans and more about people who just don't care. I suppose it's a difference in philosophy between having characters in a world that's actively out to get them and having characters in a world where everyone is their own person who just doesn't necessarily care about these other characters.

    And one last point: there doesn't seem to be any overarching point to thing for a long time, save for maybe arcs that last awhile that have some overarching conflict, in part because I find that to be more realistic as well. It's not a case where someone saves the day and they all go live happily ever after. It's a case where people might have an amazing victory today, but it only means something to a few people overall and the next day people still have to go about living their lives.

    I know I'm not the best at explaining things, so if anyone needs some clarification, let me know.

  7. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    There are different types of characters and they can fulfill different functions. Gecko's character is suited to parody and comedy, so woul major character develpoment with conflict and antagonists really suit the theme?

    There are static characters who don't change, suitable for supporting parts or some antagonists. Dynamic characters are altered by events, so they tend to be main characters. Readers can get a sense for the role of a character based on their likelihood for change.

  8. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    There's lots of conflict, that's for sure, and not just on a physical level. That's the point of the super arcs. The character development part is the hardest. There's been some happening, but I think there still needs to be this recognition that any moment it could all be undone, sometimes because of the actions of those trying to stop him. There's going to be a limit on how far he can develop now, though I might have occasion to go back and show some of how he's developed into who he is without venturing too far into the origin. The trauma behind the comedy part isn't quite so funny.

  9. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 8 years ago

    For me as a reader, character development with Psycho Gecko isn't a major concernt.

    There are at least two kinds of character development. With one kind you have the character grow and change their nature. With the other kind, the character isn't really changing so much as you the reader are learning more about the character and what he or she is like. That can look like chaacter development, but it isn't really.

    In my opinion at least, you get told (mostly by teachers) that character development is essential to a good book. In my opinion, it isn't necessarily. Some genres (mystery novels, westerns, some sci-fi and fantasy) don't really require much character development. Many a hard-boiled detective would not become more interesting if over the course of a book, he got over his childhood traumas.

    You're not reading the story for that. You're reading it because you love watching him figure out who the person behind the murder is and then stop him.

    That said, PG, if you are planning to have some kind of character progression over time, don't let me stop you. I'm just saying that you shouldn't feel like you have to have that happen.

  10. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Thanks for your input on that. A lot of the future stuff is rather murky. Aside from some broad strokes ideas for the super arcs that I can start putting into motion any time, things aren't planned in advance. Though, that little move with the bulletproof cape and the gun with Missile Patriot was one I've been wanting to see used for a few years now. We'll see how it all goes, though. I'm very open to input and some of it has served me very well, as it was originally going to be far more topical until someone said that was a bad idea. Looking back, they were right. Heck, the only reason WDiR exists at all is because people wanted me to write.

    What you've said about developed characters is something else I've heard before, in a different way. Self conscious as I am about basically being the superhuman web serial version of South Park, I asked a reader who had her own blog about writing well why she liked my stuff. The quality could be better, after all. She said it was because of Psycho Gecko's "voice". She didn't care what was going on, so long as she heard "more of that bastard's voice".


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