Updated: Apr 4
If you Google “How to get fictional characters to act?” you’ll get advice that looks something like this:
Establish your characters' motivations and goals.
Develop your characters.
Create conflict, paint a clear picture, and slowly reveal your characters' actions based on their established backstories.
You’ll find hundreds of papers repeating similar instructions. My goodness, how people like to write articles! However, such discourses don’t explain how to make characters act.
Real human beings who act in movies and TV are given conflict, weaknesses, quirks, and backstories. They’re portrayed on the screen in vivid detail with perfect lighting and expensive clothing, makeup, and hair styling.
But even with all that going on for them, they must still act.
In fact, most human beings shown in movies and TV shows must act in scenes before any character development, conflict, story, or mood has been established.
The same goes for many literary fiction characters.
So, say goodbye to those hundreds of self-aggrandizing tutelages written by pompous opinionators that provide nuances and subtle emotional and mental tricks that mold the minds of unsuspecting readers, but offer little help to the upcoming class of new authors who want their characters to act like real people.
How do I get my characters to act?
I don’t know who originally said the following, but I heard it from Brent Spiner, so I’ll credit him.
If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.
-- Brent Spiner
In only eleven words, the sentence provides all an author needs to do to make fictional literary characters behave like real human beings.
Here are three practical steps to help you apply Mr. Spiner's couplet:
Believe--for the moment--that your readers can imagine only what you specifically write on the page. They can imagine nothing more.
Write down every action the character makes, no matter how relevant or inconsequential, again remembering that your readers have no independent imagination.
When you’re done with Steps 1 and 2, filter out (delete) the character's unnecessary actions based on 1) what you believe real readers can imagine on their own, and 2) the character’s motives, personality, and backstory.
When you’re done with Steps 1 and 2, you’ll have a character who can act. Then, when you’ve completed Step 3, your readers will understand why he or she is acting that way.
You must understand that if a scene is early in the story, the readers may not yet have access to the character’s motives, personality, and backstory. But this is okay because this lack of knowledge helps propel the reader to continue reading.
The fourth step
To write a real scene, a fourth step is required:
Intersperse within your character’s actions his or her internal thoughts and feelings.
For example, which of the two scenarios feels more genuine:
“I love you,” Jack says.
Jill slaps Jack.
“I love you,” Jack says.
How dare he say that when he’s dating Betty?
Jill slaps Jack.
Let me provide a more thorough example to demonstrate Steps 1 and 2.
Setting: A boy likes a girl, but she won’t return his telephone calls. It's been a week since their last date.
Process: (Steps 1 and 2)
List the full physical visual description of the boy’s actions. No internal thoughts—this is “outward” behavior only:
He pulls up to the curb across the street from her home, but one house down.
Looking at her house, he reaches for the ignition key to turn off the engine.
He sees her lawn, her front windows, the roof, the shrubs and trees.
He glances at her neighbors’ homes, still holding the key in the ignition for another minute.
He slowly turns the key and the engine stops.
He takes his time pulling the key from keyhole.
He leans back in his seat and sighs deeply, still looking at her house.
He puts the key in his front pants pocket.
He sits for another minute before opening the door. It opens only and inch. He waits another minute, looking at her house.
He steps out and stands up, closing the door quietly.
He looks both ways down the street and walks directly to her front door, facing forward, his hands at his sides, his fingers straight.
He walks up to the white-paneled door and notices the round doorbell button on the left side of the door.
He turns his right ear toward the door for a moment.
He pushes the doorbell button.
He waits about thirty seconds while looking back and forth between the door and his feet.
He checks to make sure his shirt is tucked in properly, feeling around his waist to his back with both hands.
Scowling, he pushes the doorbell again and waits another thirty seconds.
He brings his right hand to a fist, raises it to eye level, and holds it a couple inches from the door.
But he doesn’t knock.
He looks to his right and left to the curtained windows.
He sighs again. He nods, and then looks down at his feet before turning around.
He walks back to his car, again looking forward, with his hands to his sides and his fingers straight.
He gets back into his car, but this time does not delay starting it, and drives off at a normal speed, rubbing his forehead with the back of his right hand.
I’m sure I could have added more detail. Notice that not one thought or feeling was described.
But he was acting!
Of course, no one writes a story like this, with all those sentences starting with “He.” The scene is nothing more than a list of events.
But could you feel for this guy? We may disagree with each other on what he felt, but I'm sure we agree that he felt something.
Was he shy?
Was he desperate?
Was he vengeful?
All this from a bare list of actions with no commentary or explanation.
That is acting.
Now imagine the scene after we trim away unnecessary actions and add his internal thoughts and feelings based on his motives, personality, and backstory.
What if we did this on every page of our prose? I think we’d win some awards. So, what’s stopping us?