Action is Character

Advice from Hollywood, part 3
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 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.

One 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.

Q4U: 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?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Kim Kasch

    >Mom always said, "Actions speak louder than words."

    She was trying to teach us kids character – now your teaching us writers the same thing . . .only different.

  • Alexandra

    >Just watched "My Fair Lady" tonight. Henry Higgins – prime example.

  • Tana Adams

    >This reminds me of Madame Bovary, who finds life as a wife and mother ultimately boring and decides to look for adventure in other men until finally she meets a horrible death through suicide.

    In one of my novels I have an MC who is rather self-righteous even though is she having multiple affairs herself. Of course she feels justified. My characters tend to be tragically hard headed.

  • Mystery Robin

    >I'd love an example of a character who does this really well in literature.

    Also, it's funny, because I'm always telling my husband the opposite – "so glad you brought me a latte and fixed my car, but could you use your words more?" ;)

  • Cacy

    >Howl in Howl's Moving Castle. A self described coward and slitherer-outer, but of course he's actually very brave…but then I think he says something like "I have to trick myself into being brave because I'd chicken out otherwise." I've super paraphrased the line, but he's a favorite character of mine from one of my favorite children's books.

    And even Sophie in the same book doesn't see herself or the world as she and it really are.

  • Timothy Fish

    >It seems like Anne of Anne of Green Gables acted differently than the image she had of herself, though it has been a long time since I read those books. Then there is Sara Crewe from A Little Princess. After losing both her parents and her money, her actions revealed who she really was. Ironically, in the Shirley Temple movie The Little Princess, the plot was based A Little Princess, but the character comes across as spoilt.

    She isn’t the protagonist, but Heather in For the Love of a Devil says she is one thing, but her actions prove otherwise. For example, she tells her husband that she is going to Bible study, but she ends up in the arms of another man instead.

  • Lance Albury

    >George Bailey's actions in It's a Wonderful Life revealed his character in that he always wanted to explore and build things, and ultimately escape Bedford Falls. But he couldn't suppress his heart and compassion for people long enough to pursue those dreams, and ultimately he learned who he really was and what he really loved.

  • Author Sandra D. Bricker

    >You know how some people collect books? Well, I collect characters. I put the really good ones on a shelf in my mind, and I often go back to them for inspiration. Alexandra's mention of Henry Higgins made me smile because he's prominent on that shelf. More contemporary characters that I adore for just these reasons (how they think of themselves as one thing, but the screenwriters show them as something else entirely): Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman; Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally; Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail; well, any character written by Nora Ephron. And in television, I love Murphy Brown, Monk, Chandler Bing from Friends, and one of my new all-time favorites: Castle! He's a classic.

    LOVE this discussion, Rachelle.

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >This post screams Holden Caulfield. I’ve been trying to conjure up other examples of this type of inconsistency too. It’s a brilliant point and one of the best ways to invite tension when the reader is trying to get to know a character. Truly instigates thought.

    I’m working on how to weave this into my next book, playing with my MC’s concept of security and how that will be rattled.

    ~ Wendy

  • Jane Wells

    >Perfect timing – of course!
    I'm in the process of fleshing out the characters in my WIP, and this is exactly the reminder I needed. Now, how to show the insecurities of my heroine and the vanities of my hero, and the various foibles of the supporting cast…

  • Sarah Thomas

    >Oh, Mr. Darcy! And he's mostly fighting against himself to preserve his image of himself. As much as I love him, I sometimes think Elizabeth got the short end of that stick.

    This was an outstanding post. It's made me realize some of my characters are a little too straightforward. Although the MC in my current book is a good example–he thinks he's a very righteous man, but his actions demonstrate that he's judgemental and unforgiving. Of course, he figures that out through some trying curcumstances!

  • KH

    >This post came at just the right time, as I am revising my latest manuscript. I have the feeling that the first couple of chapters are too much background and not enough action.
    Thanks!

  • Jill

    >If there's too much action and not enough thought, however, you will alienate your reader. I've read books like that, where the characterization is all done through action, and I feel like an absent observer of somebody's life. I'm currently reading a book like that, and it leaves me empty. In my own life, I'm an observer. In a book, I want to be in a character's head, hearing the story told through the character's mind as the action is occurring. And there are so many layers of show-vs-tell. Have you noticed that? Writing is a balancing act, and I wish it came more naturally to me. Does anybody else feel like a tightrope walker? :)

  • RumorsOfGlory

    >I didn't know this was a good way to create a character. I think what you're saying — how a how a character thinks or talks about themselves as one way, but their actions reveal them to be another way — is what we therapists call INCONGRUENCE.

    I think we see it most often with our sports figures. Unfortunately, I see it in myself and my associates too. One of the funniest examples of this is the movie, "What About Bob?" The crazy guy ends up being the most normal, and the super psychologist ends up going mad.

  • Timothy Fish

    >I don’t remember who to credit with saying it, but I remember a quote in Reader’s Digest a couple of decades ago that said, “You aren’t the person other people think you are. You aren’t even the person you think you are. You are the person you think other people think you are.” All of us are an incongruity. That conflict between what we want to be and what we actually are is what drives us to change. With characters, what he tells people he is is the ideal he aspires to, or if his is modest, the thing he abhors being. But his actions always reveal the truth of who he is.

  • Scooter Carlyle

    >I think of Jack Nicholson's character, Melvin, from "As Good As It Gets." The way his OCD forces him to behave is so much different than what he wants when he's with Carol, played by Helen Hunt.

    When he pays for Carol's son to see a specialist for his asthma…major goosebumps.

  • R. Chambers

    >Wonderful blog and comments.
    My first thought with regard to inconsistencies of character in screen protagonists is Bette Davis, nearly always a woman of two minds. I can’t recall the title of the film but we see her portraying herself to be a still youthful woman as one of her fake curls falls to the floor. That image has stayed with me a long time!
    Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge has superb examples of inconsistency in both Lucetta and the flawed Henchard. Lucetta presents herself to her husband as the innocent wife, while she has been the lover of his sworn enemy. Henchard blusters about angry, cruel and condemning while he is most condemning of himself. He is a tragic character unable to present to the world the vulnerable, caring person he longs to be.

  • MJR

    >I just finished the Stieg Larsson books and loved the character of Lisbeth Salander…she's tiny and thin and yet she joined a boxing club and can knock out giant thugs. She seems tough with all her nose rings and tattoos and does all this illegal stuff like computer hacking, yet she's a moral person–and very vulnerable etc etc. I kept thinking when reading these books that I wished I could create such a vivid character!

  • Katherine Hyde

    >I've never done this consciously, but now that you bring it up I can see that I have done it with all my main characters. My protags so far have all turned out to be better people than they thought they were–stronger, smarter, more compassionate, more giving. Though sometimes they do something worse than they thought themselves capable of before they show their better side.

  • Jeigh

    >I love this concept. It's very helpful in trying to develop a more rounded character. Thanks!

  • Natalie

    >Bigwig from Watership Downs. When he talks to Hazel-Rah, he can be a thick-headed jerk, but his actions are brave and self-less.

    I also like Mr Darcy as an example.

  • Marsha Young

    >Excellent post. An old poem says,

    "What you are speaks so loud that the world can't hear what you say.

    They're looking at your walk, not listening to your talk,

    They're judging by your actions every day."
    Just so.

  • Laura Drake

    >Tom Cruise – Rainman. Masterfully written script!

  • Anonymous

    >A fine example is Henry DeTamble in The Time Traveler's Wife, whom the reader loves in spite of the author's intentions. He is deeply selfish, and as he matures he becomes selfish in different ways, but it's a hidden layer of his personality shown throughout the book in actions that subtly contradict the loving husband we also see him to be. The reader is left to discover Henry's flaws and reconcile those two sides of him. The fuller picture only becomes clear when filtered through the themes of the book. Masterfully done.

    (And by way of warning, the book has some offensive and explicit sections, and is overall not my cup o' tea, but the writing is very good, and at times exquisite.)

    ~ Lea Garner

  • Benjamin Gorman

    >In the film Se7en, we see montages of both the protagonists' morning routines. Simple things like the way the men shave, tie their ties, brush their teeth, etc., tell us a lot about them.

  • DeeM

    >Let's not forget the wonderful trio of self-contradicting heroes from "The Wizard of Oz": the brilliant Scarecrow so desperate for a brain, the compassionate and loyal Tinman who wanted a heart so that he'd be able to love, and the courageous Lion who believed himself to be a coward.

  • Anonymous

    >Q: How do you show these inconsistencies in a convincing way? I tend to take people and characters at face value–and believe they are straight-forward and honest unless shown to be otherwise. Often it takes years to get to know someone, so how to do it realistically in one book?

    What if the reader thinks your MC is flaky or insincere instead of interesting and multi-layered? Easier said than done…

  • Rick Barry

    >Hmm. I'm sitting here pondering how this truth gives an advantage to writing in third-person POV over first-person. Although my first book was written in first person, it would have been tricky to show a contradictory self image in my main character when the reader "sees" everything through the character's eyes. Worth keeping in mind.

  • R.D. Allen

    >This is a fun post, because, in my last novel, the main character thinks of his efforts as saving the world when, in reality, he is literally the villain of his own story.

  • Anonymous

    >Rick, Till We Have Faces is written in 1st person and the main character is entirely self-decieved. It's brilliant! And that much more effective because the reader is deceived by and every bit as much as the character, though we figure it out just before she does. Brilliant, I say.

    ~ Lea Garner

  • Jennifer Fromke

    >I like Johnny Depp in the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He's always saying, "Don't do anything stupid!" And then he proceeds to almost always choose the stupid thing to do. And the irony is that the stupid action is generally the smartest in the end.

  • Rachelle

    >Rick, learning to create an unreliable narrator is one of the most beautiful tricks of novel writing. I just finished reading an early Sara Gruen novel, Riding Lessons, in which the first person narrator is angry, hurting, and on the edge of a nervous breakdown… but she doesn't even know it and always thinks she's in the right and entirely rational. Even though the whole thing is narrated by this character, the reader can easily see her self-deception and much of the story's tension comes from wondering when she's going to figure it out.

    Some of the greatest novels (in my opinion) are those in which the reader starts off taking the narration for granted but gradually begins to realize that the protag's point of view or self image is wrong.

    This happens most often in thrillers or crime novels in which we get snippets of the bad guy's POV. He may think he's doing something righteous, saving the world, whatever, while he's plotting to kill or torture.

  • Jil

    >Certainly something to think about and I am luckily finding some in my last work.. Kendra hates all children because her son was murdered by a mob of them, yet she buys a doll for a child and leaves it on her doorstep.
    Grieving her dead husband she is bitter and alienates herself from all people, yet she sleeps with a man who wears her husband's brand of cologne.
    I think these qualify and I am grateful for your reminder.

  • PW.Creighton

    >I prefer characters with conflicting personalities to enhance the story. Each character has a unique perspective, motive and set of choices. It shifts from a story to characters living their lives.

  • Anonymous

    >"It is our choices, Harry, far more than our abilities, that show who we truly are."

    -Dumbledore :)

  • Anonymous

    >Both Ada and Inman in COLD MOUNTAIN show their character through action. With every challenge, Inman takes the high road, even if it is more dangerous or difficult.

  • Dave

    >EXACTLY! That's exactly hero's journey philosophy (see http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ) – the actions determine the character.

  • arbraun

    >I'm thinking of Jack Torrance in The Shining, how he's sure what happened to Delbert Grady isn't going to happen to him, but it does. In one of my novels, the heroine speaks of herself as a moral person, but doesn't act very moralistic.

  • Kim Kouski

    >Travis from Taxi Driver. He's the crazy anti hero who ends up saving Iris. De Niro shows Travis slipping into insanity to where he wants to assasinate a political candidate. Instead of telling Travis is crazy, de Niro shows him going crazy. A great movie!!

  • Nina Badzin

    >Elle Woods from Legally Blonde!

  • Marion

    >Rachelle, Thanks for your reminder about "how a character thinks or talks about themselves as one way, but their actions reveal them to be another way." I'm starting revision on my WIP. I think this element is probably there, but may need to be brought into sharper focus at certain points. Will try to keep your comment in mind. Thanks again.

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