Action Reveals Character

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

In real life, it’s not what a person says that shows us who they are. It’s what they do. The content of a person’s character is revealed in action and behavior. Who a person says they are, or thinks they are, doesn’t necessarily reflect their true character.

In screenwriting, the challenge is to show a character in action, and have their actions reveal to the audience what kind of person they are—what’s important to them, what they want, what they love, and what they hate. You don’t want characters verbally telling each other (and the audience) who they are. We have to see it. Likewise, novelists need to allow their characters to show us who they are through their actions and behavior, rather than “tell” us who they are through narrative, interior monologue, or dialogue.

unmasked womanOne of the most interesting things to observe in people is how their self-image contradicts the image others have of them. A person might think of themselves as frugal, for example, but a look at their credit card statement reveals the truth. Almost all powerful characters can be described as hypocrites to some extent, because few are so self-aware that they understand all their own flaws and foibles.

So one of the most fun things we can do as storytellers is to show a how a character thinks or talks about themselves as one way, but their actions reveal them to be another way. When you decide to have a character “tell” about themselves either in narrative or in dialogue, it’s most fun if we can see where their telling contradicts what we know about them from their actions. This is one of the best ways to reveal character and keep the audience engaged at the same time.

Action IS character. Let your characters show themselves through what they do, and let their words contradict their behavior whenever possible to reveal even deeper character.

Can you think of some favorite literary or film protagonists and how their actions revealed their character? How are you doing this in your novel?

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In life & fiction, it’s not what a person SAYS that shows who they are. It’s what they DO. Click to Tweet.

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32 Comments

  • My all-time favorite character is Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) from “Bridge on the River Kwai”.

    Nicholson’s character, as the ranking officer in a group of captured British soldiers, is developed initially through his confrontation with his foil, the Japanese prison camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

    Saito orders the entire British contingent, including officers, to do manual labor on the railway bridge of the title, which is against the Geneva convention. Nicholson, seemingly an almost caricatured upper-class English toff, refuses to pass on the order, and is tortured for what seems to be slavish adherence to a rule.

    Eventually, though, Nicholson’s stubbornness and willingness to endure unspeakable cruelty reveals him as a man of profound depth and principle, which is duly recognized by his men when Saito gives in, recognizing that Nicholson’s leadership is needed to complete the bridge on time.

    It’s a wonderfully drawn development of character, and Guinness achieves much of it through body language. The way he straightens, and tries to button his tunic when told he’s being released, is an acting gem.

    (The rest of the movie takes this triumph and tosses it into the rubbish tip, with a hackneyed ‘commando’ story that ends up demonizing Nicholson as a fanatic whose efforts ultimately aid the enemy – a dramatic machination that is simply rot.)

    To aid in character development through action beats, I’m trying an experiment – storyboarding.

    I know what I want the action to show vis-a-vis character development, but have been a bit frustrated by simply developing it through writing. I am therefore putting together storyboards that delineate the scene visually, and writing them – the pen becoming the camera, so to speak.

    The results so far – pretty good. The method seems to have improved the flow of the scenes, and made writing action a more organic process in that I’m writing something I’m ‘witnessing’, rather than inventing action in the one-dimensional medium of narrative.

    The hard part – and this sounds silly – is that I have a bit of self-consciousness actually drawing pictures of my characters. I know what they look like in my head, but I’m no artist, and they looked weird on the first storyboards.

    Well…they still look weird, but I’m used to them now.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Great story and great example, Andrew. Thanks!

    • Yup. Alec Guinness owned that film and Holden’s character stole it and spit it out.
      Another WW2 film that slays me whenever I watch it is Paradise Road (Bruce Beresford, 1997) a true story about a group of women internees in Sumatra. They formed a vocal orchestra and performed for each other. By memory, these women wrote down and performed orchestral pieces, not choral pieces. In one scene, one of the Japanese guards, who by historical account, were mostly brutal, forces Glenn Close’s character to walk deep into the jungle. One watches the walk into the jungle and the prospects for Close’s character get worse and worse. But then, much to her shock, and ours, he stops, makes her sit down on a log, and he sings to her. Then he walks her back to camp.
      He says nothing, but the viewer finally sees a snippet of humanity and a longing for the guard to been seen a something other than what he is. The character’s shock is all on her face and in the way she holds her body.
      Fantastic film, absolutely one of my favourites.

      Another character who says very little in a film, but he doesn’t need to, is Wes Studi’s Magua in Michael Mann’s 1992 Last of the Mohicans. Magua is basically psychotic and bent on revenge. In the very famous cliff scene, where Magua has Alice and Uncas tries, and fails, to save her, Magua kills Uncas and barely raises an eyebrow. The level of UNfeeling and total lack of compassion for Uncas and Alice is played out on Studi’s face. Studi’s performance as Magua is chilling! Yes, I used an exclamation mark.
      After Magua kills Uncas, he reaches out to Alice, to get her off the ledge. His hand is covered in Uncas’ blood and he’s all “Okay, we’re done here, let’s go. Like, come ON, we’re wasting daylight.” Nothing! He just killed a man, and he shows no emotion. Which is how the director wanted it. Which, of course, makes the next scene even better, when Chingachgook, Uncas’ father, puts a really wicked looking knife right through Magua.
      No dialogue, just a roar of agony from Russell Means’ Chingachgook before he smites Magua. The broken look on the father’s face as he avenges his son is priceless, and the complete opposite to the villain’s total indifference.

      In my MS, I have my MC go from acting all stoic, reliable, deeply spiritual, etc, to acting like a complete idiot. The best reaction I got was when an early reader sent me an angry email because “Nez would never do that!”
      Oh he just did, didn’t he? Turn the page, darlin’, he gets worse!

      • Rats! That was meant as a post, not a reply…oh well, I’ll live, I suppose…

      • Magua isn’t that hard to understand – and I don’t think he’s psychotic.

        Revenge is a powerful motivator that can damp even the embers of all other emotion.

        And the Corsican saying, “Before setting out for vengeance, dig two graves” is very true.

      • Andrew, in my humble opinion, Magua was too psychotic. He allowed his hunger for revenge, not vengeance in the classical sense, to take a man who was a skilled warrior and turn him into a blood thirsty killing machine.

        Although Studi did have some sympathy for the character and said that at the moment Magua is trying to persuade Alice to come away from the cliff, he, the actor, was thinking, as Magua, “You can be my daughter, I will raise you as my own”.

        But I stand my ground that Magua was psychotically motivated to destroy everything and everyone in his path to exact revenge on Colonel Munroe.

        Annnnd, your turn. :)

      • The issue, I think, is that psychosis is a mental illness with clearly defined parameters, and with its roots in brain chemistry. A traumatic event can cause personality changes that mirror psychosis, but they aren’t necessarily permanent. I don’t think that one can ‘turn’ psychotic any more than one can become bipolar through life experience.

        That said, it’s important to keep the two categories separate. The warrior who becomes obsessed with revenge is generally capable of returning to something approaching normal, once the goal’s been reached or the red haze ebbs. The psychotic will not, barring intervention.

        And most military organizations – including tribal ones – weed out people with active psychoses, because they’re dangerous to everyone around them. They’re either weeded out during training, or in the field, summarily.

        Keeping this in mind while writing creates the opportunity for a far more nuanced character, because there is always the chance of redemption.

        A more recent example of the revenge obsession can be seen in the Free Poles who fought on the Allied side during WW2. Fanatical in their hatred for the Germans, they were renowned for ruthlessness – they generally did not bother taking prisoners.

        But after the war, most were able to adjust, either to the life of an exile in the west, or the punishment road they traveled if they returned home.

        Psychotics could not have done that.

      • And once again, we prove why debating with you is not the best idea.
        Andrew, for the win.

      • This was fun, and I bet Rachelle enjoyed it!

        One more example, if I may – it might be useful to those who are developing military characters.

        Sniper training is as much psychological as it is physical and technical. There are two character modes that are immediately disqualifying.

        The first, and most ominous, is the Texas Tower Syndrome – it describes the long rifleman who keeps shooting after the legitimate target, or targets are down. It’s rooted in a sense of absolute power, and stands at the border of psychosis.

        The other, more benign but still not appropriate to the job, is the Stockholm Syndrome. Snipers typically ‘get to know’ their targets through the use of shooting optics, and the shared humanity they observe makes it impossible for them to execute their mission.

        Most long riflemen are individuals of strong faith, who silently consign their targets to the Almighty.

      • Nope. ‘Fun’ is shopping. This was another ‘proof-a-thon’.

    • Andrew … we love that movie. My husband has trickled his love of old movies down on us … my oldest daughter loves them! How many teens love John Wayne? I’m so proud of her! Ha!

      I know my characters in my fiction MS … I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to invent characters! It must be hard and yet, an amazing feat. And since my story is based on a true story, my first fiction is a little easier (I need all the helps I can get!). Many questions are already answered for me.

      I’m looking forward to that challenge though. And I love learning from you all. This MS now will be better because of you all. No doubt about it.

      And Jennifer … I can’t remember details of Last of the Mohicans … I know I loved it, but I haven’t seen it in years. I’ll have to revisit it!

  • Hear, hear! Action is, indeed, character. Great post!

  • Kevin Luke says:

    Great post. I’m writing a book about a character who has reached middle age and whose life has been blown apart by problem after problem in recent years. He is now taking stock and assessing his life based on his current situation, where he is now and where he is going. You post gave me some good idea’s on my character development throughout the story. Thank you so much.

  • Hard assignment (for me)! I think of Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth overhears Mr. Darcy demeaning her …

    “If he liked you, you’d have to talk to him.”
    “Precisely. I wouldn’t dance with him …”

    Something along those lines. Then at the “ball” …

    “Did I just agree to dance with Mr. Darcy?”
    “I daresay you did.”
    “I swore to loathe him …”

    And I love in the movie when she first eyes his ginormous estate … and you see instant “love” in her eyes. Grin.

    With my own characters … I have two main. One always wants to leave the other and acts like he doesn’t care … but when the other needs help, he will run, jump, skip, and prance to save her(These aren’t humans!! ha!).

  • Denise Willson says:

    Love this, Rachelle. It’s digging down deep, finding the true layers within a character.
    For a modern day example, I think of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games Trilogy. On the surface she is very guarded, almost cold, but her actions are quite the opposite: caring and heartfelt.
    We are a complicated species,us humans.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  • Camille Eide says:

    I agree with Denise about Katniss. I’m one of those who instantly liked her, and I know many who didn’t, and who would consider her an “unlikable” character. I have to agree that there are truly unlikables, but there are those like Katniss (as well as a character of my own) who, if you watch them, contradict their outer facade, and those are extremely intriguing to me, for that very reason. I want to know why they appear cold, guarded, when something they do, such as a sacrificial act, tells otherwise. I’m sad when someone only sees the surface and doesn’t take the whole person’s actions into account. I realize I was a kind of dual-persona type in the earlier part of my life, and maybe that’s why I look closely at the dichotomy I see in others. In my case, it was a protective shell. In Katniss’s case, her guarded demeanor is something she’s had to develop for survival because of the life she’s lived. Instead of being turned off by that, I admire her for summoning the strength needed for her family, in whatever way she had in her means. I sympathize with her immediately because I can see that she’s too young to be so hard. I want to know why. And it doesn’t take long to see that she is not truly hard. It’s that hardness that helps her survive later.

    I wrote the “hard” heroine who tries to keep emotional distance from kids in her care because of a fear of getting to close and reviving her repressed need for love, something she fears due to a painful and lonely childhood of loss and abuse. Yet she can’t help but care for her charges and struggles to keep her growing love for them buried. The hero can see it, because he’s been there and recognizes the coping mechanism, and he sees her heart, even though she tries to deny it. I may not have done the job properly so that the reader sees it. And there are always those who just don’t want to see a woman who isn’t smiles and sunshine. Now, I admit I don’t like seeing a “romance” in which the H&H start off fighting and somehow, Hero falls for the b****y Heroine even though she’s done NOTHING to show anything other than her snarky coolness. I don’t buy it. Show the reader and the hero something warm and incredibly opposite of that B demeanor, and I’ll buy it without question.

    Thanks for the discussion, Rachelle. As you see, it touches close to home over here. :)

  • I can see this in so many people I know in real life. Depending on how we handle it as well as the severity, it can cause either angst or comic relief. My mind is spinning now with the possibilities in my wip, Rachelle. Thank you for the great idea!

  • Rachelle,
    Your point is extremely relevant to creating great characters. Thank you for the reminder.

    The characters I love are the ones that I believe I understand only to later learn that I didn’t at all. Unpredictability entices me to guess. I’m in the game, a player in the story. For me, a novel or movie without such characters is forgettable.

    In my novel, The Purification, Cyrus Vansickle is a villain. My beta readers have told me that he is irresistible because of his unpredictability. In the beginning, his behavior suggests that he’s just another henchman for hire. Like most henchman, he finds human suffering enjoyable. But as the story unfolds, Cyrus’ actions reveal that he actually views what he does as not only justified, but a moral duty to perform.

    It’s been quite rewarding to hear how intensely my beta readers hate him. They yearn for his punishment. This reaction challenged me to work more diligently on the depth of my other characters. I want each to elicit such deep emotional responses from readers.

  • Anna Labno says:

    I love your post.

    Let’s not forget dialog is action.

    I know one person who presents herself on her website as a humble person, but she can’t stand anyone sharing knowledge. It needs to come from her, nobody else. She goes into her rage. It’s sad to see.

  • One way to showcase an intriguing character arc is to plop two characters into a similar traumatic event, and then expand on how differently they respond. This is what I’ve done in my novel.

    Yesterday, I began a blog post series that I hope will be fun. Personality types fascinate me, especially the Myers-Briggs indicator. There’s a bit of hilarity in merging characters with similar temperaments from different well-known movies, shows or books in order to pick them apart. My goal is to include a Downton Abbey character on each post, because who doesn’t want to know more about their inner workings and motivations?

    http://jennibrummett.com/2014/01/14/4-inspectors-in-the-green-room/

    • Interesting point about putting characters into a traumatic event, and charting their course.

      It’s almost a cliche that in a firefight (which is generally pretty traumatic for most) the he-man chest thumpers often dissolve into pools of whimpering self-pity, while the glasses-wearing skinny kids who are completely overbalanced by the weight of a rifle will cooly hold the line.

  • Very timely for me, Rachelle. I put down a book this morning because the hero’s actions tell me all I need to know about him. And he’s a jackass of epic proportions.

  • Andrea Jones says:

    This made me think of the Protagonist in the Hunger Games. She sees herself as useless and a plague on her people, only making matters worse when she tries to help…reality is she is very strong and unwittinly leading people to freedom. :)

    This blog post reminded me of the first line of my book..
    “Our actions are not remembered by our names, but our names remembered by our actions. I am the Peace Child.” …great post Thanks

  • Hannah says:

    This is very jarring when done wrong. On my blog, I’m currently running a series where I’m going through one of the worst books I’ve ever read chapter by chapter, and one of the key issues is that how the author describes his characters doesn’t match up at all with their actions. Early on, a character is repeatedly spoken of as being “very protective” of his nine-year-old daughter, but while on a cruise, he hands her over without any qualms to the care of a strange man he has met just the day before, asking him to take her on several excursions to other countries since he is too busy. These are not the actions of a protective parent, and it just made the author and all his characters look a little… delusional, as they constantly raved about how protective and careful he was with his daughter.

  • In my current MS my character is a CIA operative who immerses himself in his career because it’s a change of identity. No ties. No connections. It makes it easier for him to do his job and avoid feelings. However, each mission, each operation requires him to care for something. His career, his country, his fellow operatives. So while he fights the connection on the exterior, on the interior he is connected and tied to everything he puts his life on the line for.

    Enjoyed the blog and reading all of the comments. I especially enjoyed the banter between Andrew and Jennifer :) Oh and I appreciate the tidbit on long riflemen, very interesting.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    The character that came to mind was Scarlett O’Hara. Most things about her behavior are self-serving, vain, spoiled, resentful and hateful. A lot of what she did hurt people deeply, but she was incredibly strong and determined to save what she could, including her home and family. She resented Melanie for all the reasons we know, but still, she stood by her and “birthed her baby.”

    Perhaps it’s not that what they say is different than what they do, but are contradictory within themselves, too. Mixed feelings causing indecisiveness, and depending on which feeling is stronger is what probably dictates the actions in the end?

  • Layered, complicated characters are the reason I love some of my favourite books. Christa Parrish is a master at creating deeply flawed, very realistic yet still likeable characters.

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