The Secret to Crafting Believable Characters
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About the Author: C.S. Lakin
C. S. Lakin is an editor, award-winning blogger, and author of twenty novels and the Writer’s Toolbox series of instructional books for novelists. She edits and critiques more than 200 manuscripts a year and teaches workshops and boot camps to help writers craft masterful novels.
Her new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, is now available for early enrollment. Use the code EARLYBIRD at checkout to save 50% before September 1st, 2019.
Readers today want to get deep into our characters rather than being told what they are feeling. Which means our characters must feel, react, emote, and process in natural, believable ways. Deep POV has become the norm across genres.
“Show, don’t tell” is the golden rule of fiction, but it’s easier said than done. If we show too much, we risk boring our readers (and ourselves) or overwriting. If we show too little, we risk failing to adequately reveal the character’s emotions and, hence, fail to evoke any emotional response in our readers.
As we balance narrative, backstory, dialogue, action, and direct thoughts, we have to be mindful of the overarching purpose of all of it: to artfully show the character’s emotional state through her mind-set, thoughts, behavior, dialogue, and body language. It is not easy to do well. The saying “Easy reading is hard writing” is a truth seasoned authors know well.
There’s a little-known secret that lies at the heart of creating believable characters, and that’s the Action-Reaction cycle. What’s that? you ask. And why is it so important? I’ll answer the second question first.
If your characters don’t show emotion in believable ways and in the right moments in a scene, or if they don’t show emotion at all when emotion is expected, it will disappoint and/or confuse readers. We need our characters to behave like real people, to act and react naturally.
I often find myself writing in the comments of a critique: What’s his reaction? How does this make him feel? You’re in his head, so what is he thinking? How can you show these feelings?
Writers get so busy playing out their plot, they sometimes don’t stop to consider the realistic flow of behavior for their characters.
So, just what is the Action-Reaction cycle? We were all taught in school (or so one supposes) Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law applies well to human behavior, though the permutations of a given reaction are myriad and depend on the person. Don’t fret — I’ll elaborate.
The cycle regarding human behavior is best described as action-reaction-process-decision-new action. This cycle must be evident in all your characters’ actions. It might replay numerous times in a scene, or you might have a scene in which only one of these five stages is shown. Let’s break down the cycle together.
An Action Triggers a Series of Reactions
Let’s say a character named Joan is in her kitchen, and she hears a crash. She has an immediate or visceral response to this action. She might jump or gasp. She might spin around to see what caused the crash. That’s reaction. She is not going to hear a crash and immediately start logically analyzing what might have caused the crash. These steps go in order.
After Joan hears the crash and spins around to see what happened, she will react further. Let’s say her cat has knocked a vase onto the table, and water is spreading all over her laptop and important thesis notes. Now we would get another reaction, something beyond the initial visceral reaction. And along with that reaction we would assume there would be some emotion.
What Occurs during Processing
From there, Joan — feeling emotion — will process the situation and make some decision. She might swoop up her laptop and shake the water off, screaming at the cat. She might crumple to the floor and sob. Whatever fits her character.
Thoughts might pour through her head — about the cat, the lost work, the repercussions of missing her deadline. And since thoughts lead to emotions, these processing thoughts will generate more, maybe different emotions than those initially felt.
She might first be stunned, then horrified, then outraged, then miserable, then hopeless. All this could occur in the span of a minute, and these emotions might not even be recognized, understood, or accurately identified by Joan. A real challenge, then, for the writer, to somehow convey this natural process in a singular moment.
Know Your Genre
Reaction leads to processing. And that could be one line or an entire chapter, depending on your genre and story. In a mystery, a detective might spend an hour processing a clue or crime scene. In a women’s fiction, a woman might take a day to process what her boyfriend did or said to her. Or maybe half the novel.
In a fast-action thriller, the hero might react and process in a matter of seconds. A man shoots at him, he reacts by jumping behind a building. He processes that his enemy has a small-range pistol and not a semiautomatic weapon. He then decides to chance running across the courtyard to get to safety. He runs amid gunfire, but trips and falls, hurting his ankle. Now he must react to that and form a new decision quickly. Will he scramble to continue across the courtyard, or will he hunker down behind the car?
Action-reaction-process-decision-new action. And it varies by genre, so study how the best-sellers in your genre show this process.
Three ways to show emotional reaction…
At this point, let’s pause to consider how we might show that emotional reaction that follows an action. This can be done in three basic ways:
Telling what the character is feeling. If it’s appropriate for the character and the moment, she might name the emotion she believes she is feeling (“I’m so angry!”) in narrative, direct thought, or dialogue.
Showing what the character is thinking. Thoughts reveal emotion, and they’re usually the best way to convey complex emotions revealing the impetus behind them.
Showing emotion by body language or sensations. A character may be aware of her body response to an action, or she might notice physical “tells” in herself or others that indicate some emotion.
Let’s look at how this might play out in our scene with Joan, when the cat knocks over the vase. Joan hears the crash and reacts in surprise, turns, and sees what happened. She now has a different emotional response from her initial visceral reaction. You could tell the emotion:
Furious and frantic, Joan rushed to the table and swooped up her dripping computer. She turned to Ralph, who sat on the wet papers licking his paws, totally unconcerned over the destruction he’d just wreaked. “No supper for you, Ralph!”
Often, as in that example, it’s unnecessary to tell or name the emotion (furious and frantic). The action following that phase shows those emotions, so the telling is superfluous. That is why it takes a masterful writer to tell emotion well.
Now, you can also show the emotion via body language and internal physical sensations:
Joan’s mouth dropped open, but no words came out. Her hands fisted and shook as she ran to rescue her laptop from the onslaught of water still pouring out of the overturned vase. Her heart pounded hard, and tears filled her eyes as she thought of all those hours she’d spent on her thesis, and a stab of pain skewered her gut when she realized she hadn’t backed up any of her material to the cloud.
This is clearly over the top, but I did so to make the point that less is more. Don’t overuse body language.
Finally, you can reveal emotion by your character’s thoughts:
Joan glared at the scene — the drenched laptop, the soaked papers, the cat licking his paws.
This couldn’t be happening. She’d spent six hours, late into the night working on her last chapters. Chapters her advisor made her rewrite for the millionth time.
She grabbed the laptop and shook it, water flinging, and grabbed a dishtowel off the counter. Please, please work, she begged silently as she toweled it off and set it on her lap, plopping on the floor. She pounded the power button, but the light wouldn’t come on.
She had to turn in those chapters before noon. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t get another chance. Her funding had run out. She couldn’t get another loan. Her parents would not bail her out this time. Not after the fiasco last semester, when she’d crashed the car they’d bought her. She promised them no more parties, no more drinking. They’d never believe her cat was to blame for her failing to get her PhD.
Stupid cat! She could wring his neck!
She shut the cover of her computer, opened it up again, pounded the button.
A scream grew in her throat as she hefted the laptop and aimed it at Ralph. He looked at her with those big green eyes and meowed as if to say he was sorry. She set down the laptop and pulled Ralph into her arms, his throaty purr an innocent apology.
Yeah, we’re both sorry.
Of course, you can use a combination of all three. There is nothing wrong with any of these methods. There are times when naming what a character is feeling is perfectly fine and very effective. There are no set rules as to when or how to show and tell. But, of course, some choices are going to be more effective, more masterful, than others.
Herein lies the secret to creating believable characters: understanding this action-reaction process so that your characters will behave naturally. If any of this process is missing, a scene will feel off, the characters won’t seem real, and this will thwart your attempt at both showing your characters’ emotions and evoking emotion in your reader.
Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction?
Enroll in Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. And if you enroll before September 1st, you can get half off with coupon code EARLYBIRD.