Characterizing Characters Through Specific Action

The best way to characterize characters is to show them doing things.

I know this is the second post about characters, but I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. Stories are about characters, right? When a new one is introduced, I want to know who she is, what kind of person she is, and what she does right then.

So how do you do that?

There are several tools you can us to characterize your characters, the main ones being dialogue, action, appearance, and thought. In this post, I’m focusing on action. How does one characterize through action? I’ll break it down:

  1. Explaining specific actions.
  2. Explaining them in vivid detail.

What’s a specific action? Let’s look at an example. Say you have a character who is a bully. The average writer might say:

Derrick was a bully.

Simple, but what do we get from that? Do we know how he bullies people? Do we know what he does that makes him a bully? This is important:

It takes nothing to simply tell the reader that a character is a [fill in the blank].

You know what does take something?

Derrick was the kind of boy who enjoyed ripping live frogs apart.

Whoa. Not only can we actually see him ripping the frogs apart, but we get way more than just, “Derrick was a bully.” We’ve probably all heard the adage, “show, don’t tell,” which is important, but this actually shows us how to do that. It’s an action that is both specific and vivid, and look how it pays off: We understand that this Derrick kid is a cruel boy. He’s ruthless, he actually spends his free time looking for trouble, and you might even go so far as to say he has something against nature. All of this in one sentence! Those are the kind of characterization snippets you can use immediately, and actually go a lot further than just telling us that Derrick was a bully.

This technique is especially useful for background characters, since you don’t have as much time to describe them. Of course your main character will be characterized over the course of your story through his or her actions, but things like this certainly help to speed the process along.

Let’s look at one more example.

Catherine was a sweet girl.

Unspecific, not vivid, boring. Try this instead:

Catherine could always be found helping the old blind man across the street.

The important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no right or wrong to this. If it’s a specific action that’s vivid, you’re good.

Finally, check out Creation by Jeffrey Ford. This story won the World Fantasy Award in 2003. The whole story is fantastic, but look at the seventh and eighth paragraph specifically. Characterization at its finest.


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