Character Actions: The Building Blocks for Emotional Complexity

When I received the first round of edits for my current work-in-progress, one consistent theme kept coming up — I needed more “character actions.”

My editor explained that people don’t just talk and think thoughts. They fidget, shrug, nod, chew their lips, scratch their heads, etc.

These details make characters more vivid and relatable.

As currently written, my characters seemed more like discombobulated talking heads than real people.

So the point was well-taken. But as I started applying these edits, I found that each page took me an hour or more. I’d wear out my brain trying to think of alternate ways to write “he shrugged” or “she rolled her eyes” (my characters are all teens).

Of course I did Google searches like “how do people show fear through body language?”, but as every writer knows, Google is a minefield of distractions. After tons of wasted time, I’d usually end up going with the character action I’d originally thought of in the first place.

I asked myself, do character actions really matter? When it comes to my genre (horror), people don’t care about that stuff, right? Don’t they just want to skip to the action?

I knew that was a cop-out, though.

Desperate, I leafed through some books on my shelf. I considered a wide range of writers from different genres, spanning indie, classic, and mainstream, but all considered “successful” writers, and asked myself, how do these writers incorporate character actions?

Keep it simple

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Across the board, all these writers applied only minimal character actions, which made me realize — I was way overcomplicating this!

Usually the character action would be no more than a sentence and certainly didn’t involve any deep psychological knowledge of body language. In fact, usually actions were just that — actions — like running, walking, setting a book down, etc.

Every action has a purpose

Of course, every character action needs a purpose…beyond pleasing your editor!

As I studied examples of character actions in my books, I divided them into categories. These were the three main purposes I discovered, using examples from my own novel to illustrate:

1. To create suspense

Otis did not back down. He stepped forward, a twig cracking under his shoe. A cricket chirped. He aimed the gun at Nicolas. Sweat trickled down Otis’s forehead, burning his eyes. Otis clicked the trigger.

Previously, this paragraph began with the sentence, “Otis clicked the trigger.” None of the sentences building up to this moment were there, and with no buildup, there’s no suspense.

2. To emphasize a point made in dialogue

Ed lunged at Otis, snatching the gun from his hand.

“Gotcha!” he said, mirthfully waving the gun. “Now we have knives and a gun. And we’re bigger.” He flexed his bicep. “Guess who’s gonna win.”

Although flexing is a pretty obvious display of someone’s strength and size, the action highlights Ed’s obnoxiousness and leads readers to dislike him even more.

3. To add tension between a character’s words and emotions

“Not even how you used to spend your Friday nights?” The hint of a smile formed in the corners of Mrs. Thompkin’s lips.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shelly said, rubbing the back of her neck.

Although Shelly claims innocence, her nervous gesture implies that she’s hiding something.

Picture the scene as a movie in your mind

When you’re writing a scene, you’re painting a picture for the reader. Before you can accomplish this, though, the picture must be clear in your own mind.

Imagine each scene playing out in your head. Visualize the setting. Where would the character be standing right now? Where is he in relation to the other characters? Are they crammed together in a tiny room, or are they scattered about in an auditorium?

Thinking about scenes in these terms helped to simplify the process of creating more believable characters and situations.

Character actions made simple

Quite by accident, I discovered The Emotion Thesaurus, which has saved me massive amounts of time.

For each emotion featured, there’s an extensive list of physical signals (i.e. “lips parting,” “steady eye contact”), internal sensations (“quickening heartbeat”), mental responses (“a desire to move closer”) and even signs of that emotion being suppressed (“forced laughter to hide anger”).

Of course, like a regular thesaurus, you still have to use your imagination and judgment. It won’t write all your character actions for you.

For me, though, the benefits of this book extend beyond saving time. It’s actually changed the way I approach character development.

Revealing a character’s emotions through action need not be viewed as some mystical process but can be as simple as checking items off a list:

  1. What are others’ perceptions of this character?
  2. What is the character thinking and feeling?
  3. How is the character interacting with his/her space?
  4. What is the character physically doing (or not doing) at this moment?
  5. How are others reacting to this character’s words and behavior?
  6. How is the character trying to hide his/her emotions?

Conclusion

“Show don’t tell” is a rule we’ve all heard a million times and grasp intuitively, but it can be hard to pull off, especially in longer works where we’re juggling plot, dialogue, etc.

Luckily, just as the five senses can be utilized to create more dynamic descriptions, character actions are the building blocks for richer characters with complex emotions. Although the process of developing these characters is a straightforward one, the end result will be organic characters that stay with the reader long after the story is over.


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