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Revealing Character Through Action

Updated on September 16, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

You know the mantra “Show, don’t tell”? For a writer, this is one phrase they hear a lot of. It is one that cannot be ignored. Use the actions of a character to reveal who they are. You don't have to tell the reader what the character is like. Let them see it. They accept it easier that way.

I can tell you that my co-worker is a drama queen, but you have to see her in action to fully appreciate it. My telling you could mean many different things, but when you see her, you get the full effect. Telling is bland compared to the real thing. That is what your readers what and expect. Give them more by letting your character's actions finish the descriptions.

Using Emotional Action

Emotion is powerful. When you see emotion in someone, you sit up and take notice. Seeing emotion makes a bigger impact than just telling about it. Yet...

Any action can be deceiving. As an author, you can be as deceptive as you want. Most people aren’t too good at deception in their actions. Their bodies and faces betray their true selves. They can say they are calm but their actions might show it as a lie. Let’s go over some examples.

  • Tears pool up when hearing of someone being hurt – These are not huge actions, but they are actions. A normally stern man might have tears pool up in his eyes thinking no one can see while the rest of his body remains normal. That says a lot about him. The author doesn’t have to say the man had a tender heart hidden. The reader can see for herself when the tears show up. His actions tell it all.

  • Hands clenching when they hear that someone is continuing what they started – This is something that many people don’t notice. When someone is angry, and they are trying to hide it, they unconsciously make their hands into a fist. They might unclench it quickly, but they pull their hand tight for a moment. All you have to do is show the character doing this. It’s a hint to the anger inside of him. Show, don’t tell me about it.

  • Talks fast and moves fast – Usually when someone is nervous, they tend to talk faster than usual and move around in quick motion. Have a character see something others don’t and want to get out of that place quickly. They’ll begin quickly putting things up and talking about anything to get everyone’s attention off of what they saw. When I see them, I take notice and put the pieces together for myself.

Using Physical Action

Okay, many of the emotional actions had some physical attributes to them. But there are some that are a lot more physical. By their normal activity, you can learn a lot about a character.

How someone moves can give a lot into their character. You can give little hints about them every time you describe them.

  • Does the character hold the door for others? This reveals courtesy if they do or selfishness when they don’t.

  • How do they treat others?

  • What do they want the most?

  • How do they act in groups?

    Do they interrupt people talking?

You can learn about someone just by watching them. Do it in real life. Sit back and watch those around you. See how their actions reveal who they are deep down inside. How they act with others reveals a lot about them. Let their actions speak for them.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

This sounds weird when we are talking about writing a story, but it still works. Let the actions of the characters tell the reader what they need to know. My husband and I left a relative's house one day. He thought the visit went well. I disagreed. I had been watching the people closely and noticed how lips tightened, fingers tapped, legs shuffled, and other such movements. He never saw them so he got a different impression. My observations rendered an entirely different pictures. As the writer, you can control what the reader sees. If you want them to see the truth, allow them to see the tiny movements like I did. If you want them in the dark, keep the movements hidden. It's all up to you. The power is in your hands.


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