Actions Speak Louder Than Anything Else

On June 8, 2019, Hazel B. wrote, How do you make a character feel believable? Once you know how to make a person likable or unlikable, how do you make her real? When I’m writing, I usually pick an outward trait to start out with, such as shy or bossy. But not everyone is always bossy, and not everyone is always shy. I’m actually a combination of both. How do you make the character consistent, relatable, and believable?

Writing Ballerina and Christie V Powell responded.

Writing Ballerina: I usually don’t worry about that too much until I’m done the first draft. Then I take one character, comb through, and make everything consistent. I also like to run my characters through personality tests so I can get a better feel for them.
https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test is my favourite — free and very in-depth.

Keep in mind that the characters your MC (I’m assuming you’re talking about the MC, but this will work for any character) is around will affect how they act. When I’m with my closest friends I can be super hyper and silly but when I’m with other people I’m usually more reserved.

Christie V Powell: Enneagram is my favorite system, similar to 16 personalities. The free test is here: https://www.eclecticenergies.com/enneagram/test.

One thing I’ve been doing lately with a couple of writing friends is role-play. We take turns asking a question each week, and choose which characters will answer. Then we answer as if we were the characters. It can be a lot of fun, as well as good practice to get inside the characters’ heads. Recent questions we’ve done include: What do you do to relax? Are you a night owl or early bird? What’s a skill you don’t have but would like to learn? Some of the questions also are addressed to certain characters. We might say: To the main character’s best friend, or To the character last in alphabetical order, or To the youngest main character.

I agree with Writing Ballerina that consistency is paramount. I hate it when a character who, say, is edgy and irritable inexplicably turns calm and jovial. Character growth has to be earned, and the reader needs to understand it.

Having said that, I also agree that characters, like people, are different in different environments. Our edgy dude can be relaxed in the company of his great-aunt Susie, as long as the reader understands that she has this effect on him.

I love the role-play idea! What fun! I love it both for the writing assist and for the comradeship. Writing is lonely and hard. Writer friends understand like nobody else. And what a great way to bring in the unexpected, and the unexpected and surprising are a terrific way to create layered characters who feel real.

I’m thinking a lot about this right now, as I write the beginning of my next book, based on Greek mythology, specifically Cassandra and the fall of Troy. Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, is given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but he curses it soon after by making no one believe her. After the curse, people, especially her father, consider her prophecies rants and believe she’s mad. I’m thinking about what it would be like both to see the future and to be considered crazy. What’s the thought process of someone who can look ahead? Who can see her own death? Does she look ahead constantly, compulsively, or does she avoid it? Does she keep trying to convince people, or does she give up? Turn inward?

I ask these questions because I find my characters in their actions. She’s a different character if she keeps returning to what brings her pain than if she distracts herself. I don’t think she’s going to be my major MC, but she’s going to be second in importance.

Characters’ characters affect our plot. An extrovert named Margie, for example, may make different decisions from a shy person, named Violet, nicknamed Shrinking. For example, Shrinking may stay home instead of going to the castle ball and may therefore be present when an intruder comes through a window. Margie goes to the party and witnesses the prime minister tip a vial of liquid into the king’s cream of mushroom soup. Each spins the plot in a different direction.

Our characters become increasingly real and layered as they make more and more decisions. Does Shrinking hide in the cellar, or run to the gallery where armor and swords are kept, or run to the head housekeeper for assistance, or appeal to her fairy godmother? Depending on her choice, other decisions have to follow, decisions that use other of her qualities, which we discover as we go along.

For example, suppose Shrinking is, to take another of Hazel B.’s examples, also bossy, so she runs to the head housekeeper and, in a trembling voice, orders her to deal with the intruder. But the head housekeeper says police actions aren’t in her job description and refuses. Well, what does Shrinking do next? We can make a list!

∙ Fires the housekeeper.

∙ Grabs the housekeeper’s hand and says, “Then we have to get to safety. Come!” (She’s still bossy.)

∙ Shrinking is shy, but she’s brave. It dawns on her that the intruder doesn’t expect terrifying small talk, and introversion doesn’t come into this. She takes a poker from the fireplace and a carving knife from the kitchen and starts searching.

∙ Sits on a stool and weeps uncontrollably. Her birthday is in a week, and her beloved father always gives the best presents, and now the intruder is going to kill her and she’ll never find out what the gifts are.

And so on. With each decision and action, we learn more about Shrinking and she becomes more real. We haven’t made her less believable–though not everything on our list has to be believable. In lists we’re encouraged to get wild.

Option two and three will contribute to her likability and relatability, because both combine two factors: Shrinking is behaving admirably, and she’s flawed, being both shy and bossy. Most readers want a flawed MC, because we’re all flawed ourselves.

Options one and four will make her harder to relate to without other factors. In them, on the face of it, she’s flawed and not admirable. We can deal with this, of course, in lots of ways. Here’s one: We may have set up the story so that the housekeeper is the real villain, and she’s drawn Shrinking into her orbit for just this moment, because she’s in cahoots with the intruder. Readers who already feel connected to Shrinking will be on her side and scared for her. Or we can make her behave well with other characters, but the housekeeper just pushes all her buttons, and they’re alone together in the mansion.

I generally don’t know my characters well when I start writing. They reveal themselves as I cook up actions for them. When I start a book I don’t generally use a character questionnaire, but I may fill one out as I keep going, to generate ideas for my list about what one of them should do next.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Add six more possibilities to my list above for a grand total of ten.

∙ Pick one of mine or one of yours and write the story.

∙ List what extrovert Margie might do when she sees the prime minister mess with the king’s soup.

∙ Pick one option and write Margie’s story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Something that would be interesting is to explain why no one listens to Cassandra even if they know the exact nature of her gift. And even if they’re convinced she’s wrong, wouldn’t they still take what she says into consideration?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Apollo makes no one believer her, so people can’t no matter how obvious it is that she’s right. Like if she predicted that I won’t eat dinner tonight, even though I eat dinner every night I’d be sure tonight will be an exception (I must be hungry). I haven’t gotten to that part yet, but I’ll have to demonstrate how it works.

  2. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice on how to be more subtle when it comes to how characters are feeling? In my WIP, my MC, Peter, lost his memory. He has a lot of conflicting emotions about it, but I feel like instead of revealing them in authentic, “Did you catch that?” kind of way, I’m just throwing everything I even think he might feel on the page. This is a bad thing because the story is built around him coming to terms with the fact that he won’t remember who he was before, and that he has to move forward. (That’s not the main thing, of course, but it’s one of the personal conflicts in the story) I just don’t want to tell everything, but I also don’t want to make Peter seem as if he thinks all of it is fine, because he really doesn’t.
    Any advice is welcome.

    • Can I recommend a book? I keep a copy of “The Emotion Thesaurus” on my writing desk. It has a lot of helpful tips. Each emotion has a definition, physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, long-term sympton,s and suppressed symptoms. It’s extremely helpful.

    • Maybe he can have this one friend who is constantly trying to make sure he’s okay. Then, you can include both how he feels about it and how he feels about constantly being checked on. The friend can help remind us that he’s got this thing going on, and you won’t have to try so hard when you’re writing his thoughts.

    • How does he cope? Most of us have some way of coping with overwhelming emotions and those ways are going to look different for each person.

      I’m reading Carry on, Mr. Bowditch for about the third time. It’s a story based on a real person in early US history, and, to put it bluntly, a lot of people die – of consumption, of fever, at sea, etc. In the story, when Nat Bowditch has just received bad news, he gets busy studying. It gets his mind off of it, and calms him down.

      In one of my stories, the MC deals with grief and fear by making plans. It’s sort of a way to feel like she has a little control over her life. Some people sit and think. Some listen to music that expresses what they can’t put into words. Others use music, work, or socializing to avoid thinking about what they are feeling. Some of these “coping mechanisms” are ways of processing what’s happened, and some are ways of shelving the emotion when it’s too big and complicated to deal with.

      Maybe at some point, Peter could be shelving his emotions. He might appear fine, but you could reveal through his thoughts that he keeps distracting himself every time he begins to think of his losses. You could show it in his actions too, if he changes the subject quickly or leaves the room every time someone speaks of the past.

      Later on, you could show him allowing himself to think things through, or talk about it with someone else.

  3. future_famous_author says:

    I have a really annoying problem.

    I have a good idea for a book, and I know exactly where I want it to go- but I can’t start.
    I’ve written the beginning multiple times, but it never works out. Sometimes I write stuff that’s just explaining the character and setting, but then I can’t bring it to action. And other times it just sounds all wrong.

    I’m not sure if that’s enough information to base your replies off, so tell me if you need more!!! Thanks!

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Don’t worry about the beginning! Edit later! (That’s my motto: edit later :P) Just go with a beginning that works, even if it only works a little bit.
      If you can’t find a beginning that works at all, then skip the beginning altogether! You can put it in later. If you know some of the action that needs to happen, your beginning can be any old starter, like “Once upon a time…” or “well, I suppose the story starts with…” etc, etc. Once you settle on an actual good beginning, you can write it in later. There’s no rule that says books have to be written chronologically.

  4. This isn’t supper related to the post, but I wanted to say thank you, to Mrs. Levine, and to everyone on the blog! You(and the blog) have been soooooo helpful in my writing. Your books(especially Writing Magic and Writer to Writer) have been some of my favorite books, and have helped my writing so much!!!!!!!

  5. Have I ever mentioned I love this blog? Because I really do. 🙂 Thank yo for the posts! I’ve been reading them, though I haven’t had a spare second to comment, but I really really love them. I know this is way late, but I especially enjoyed your historical writing posts, because, although my current books are set in a completely fictional, world, understanding the history of the real world has been utterly crucial to developing it.!

    It would have made sense to mention this back when you wrote those posts, but I didn’t, so I’m going to seem off the wall now – but one small advantage I’ve had in one area is that my youngest brother is obsessed with edged weapons. He’s spent years reading books, watching documentaries, even learning how to forge swords himself, and has therefore been really helpful for getting ideas and gleaning information quickly. Another relative is a music teacher and has taught me a lot about the history of musical instruments, which has actually been helpful as well! Of course, I’m sure actual historians are preferable – but I do think that friends and family who are simply huge nerds can also be beneficial!

    On an unrelated note, does anyone have any ideas for naming brand new creatures? I’m not so bad at naming breeds of things that already exist, like horses and dogs (Burne Terriers and Kovian windhounds totally make sense in this world), but I’ve also created a variety of new creatures – including once-humans that have been transformed into monsters – that I am utterly failing at naming. I’ve been using temporary nick names for them since I started this story a year and a half ago, so I really think it’s time to get some better names for them, but I hate all my ideas…

    • One idea is to give them descriptive names (think red-eyed tree frog). Another is to randomly combine syllables until you get something you like. If you’re feeling creative, you could give them a descriptive name in a real language that no one in your story speaks.

    • future_famous_author says:

      You could also combine prefixes and suffixes (maybe even using prefixes as suffixes or vise versa) that make sense for the creature. For example, if your creature is evil, or very mischievous, then you could use the prefix mal in their name. Also, remember that usually at first the name will sound and feel weird, but as you get used to it, then it will feel normal.
      I have a stuffed animal that I got a long time ago who I named Joko (joe-koe) and by now the name just feels like any old name to me.

    • I like the website Behind the Name for naming things. I take what I know about the character/race, find a language I like the sound of, and look at the names until I find one that fits with both meaning and sound. One of my groups in one of my books that works for the Sultan is called the Shahnaz, which in Arabian means “pride of the king.” That kind of thing.

      • I’ve had such fun with Behind the Name! I’m getting the names for the serpent-demons and “angels” from the Biblical section.

        The funny part? The only character I named off the top of my head was Malak, my half-demon hero who starts out trying to deny his angelic side. I looked it up on Behind the Name, and found this:
        Gender Feminine & Masculine
        Usage Arabic
        Scripts ملك(Arabic)
        Pronounced mal-AK [key · IPA] (I’ve been stressing the first syllable, though.)
        Meaning & History
        Means “angel” in Arabic.

        :snort, giggle:

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