We judge people by their actions, and the same is true of characters. The one that spends three hundred pages thinking of how he hates everyone, all the while buying magazines from every struggling college kid, will be judged positively. Conversely, the man that thinks kind thoughts about his family and friends, but gossips at every opportunity, will be judged negatively. Out of the heart, a man speaks, and out of the heart he acts.
“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans.”
Shakespeare (The History of Troilus and Cressida)—
"Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what not stirs."
F. Scott Fitzgerald—
"Action is character."
Four employees are reprimanded by their manager for failing to complete an assignment on time and as a result, colleagues involved with the subsequent leg of the project will have to work through the weekend. One of the employees runs to the bathroom in tears while another slinks back to his desk and fights the urge to crawl beneath it. A chuckle escapes from the third employee who continues to laugh at full volume once he leaves the manager’s office. And the last employee, his body made large with his shoulders back and chin high, steps towards his boss and plants his feet close enough to smell the manager’s breath. “This is your fault,” he shouts and proceeds to tell him why, unloading a tirade that rocks the outer office.
Four people, one scenario, four different responses. As a man perceives, so he acts and reacts.
In Richard Russo’s novel Bridge of Sighs, Bobby Noonan, an old friend of the protagonist (Louis Charles Lynch, a.k.a. Lucy) is a successful painter and expatriate of a painful childhood. Though he’s built a life in denial, the memories of a cruel father filter into his art.
“Well, it’s all worm, isn’t it.” It had long been Hugh’s contention that Noonan’s only subject, regardless of who or what he was painting, was the worm in the apple, the small, off-putting detail that registered in the viewer’s subconscious and undermined the overall effect, the too-pale white spot on the skin that hinted at malignancy beneath.
Noonan’s art, the result of his action, reveals a perspective that explains the form his life has taken since leaving his hometown of Thomaston. Denial or not, wherever Noonan looks, wherever he goes, whatever happens, it’s all worm.
Among four employees, one reprimand meets four sets of preexisting beliefs, and four sets of preexisting beliefs summon four different emotions—sadness, shame, amusement, and anger. The first two employees have no doubt of their guilt and feeling powerless, one becomes distraught with concern for those who will pay the price and the other is overwhelmed with humiliation. The second two employees don’t see themselves as responsible. Secure in himself, one laughs it off while the other, compelled to defend his territory, explodes with blame.
Action drives plot. And character, never forget, drives action. Even when forces beyond a character’s control demand recourse, it nonetheless remains the character who determines which course to take.
When twenty-three-year-old Jacob Jankowski’s parents are tragically killed, he walks from his Princeton University classroom and keeps walking, through the day and into the night. Then, as if awakening from a dream, Jacob finds himself beside railroad tracks with a train coming towards him. He begins to run and as an open boxcar comes along side, Jacob Jankowski jumps aboard. “It matters not a whit where it’s going.”
By this action, Sara Gruen introduces her Water for Elephants‘ protagonist. Among all the things a bereaved college student could choose and Gruen has a Princeton boy just shy of his degree picking door #3, the filthy boxcar headed nowhere. And it comes about in such a way that it almost seems like happenstance, like this isn’t really what Jacob Jankowski is choosing. Surely not. Surely fate has picked him up by the shirt collar and thrown him onto that train. But no, this is Jacob’s choice. This is Jacob’s defining act. This is Jacob not merely ‘starting the show’, so to speak, action devoid of character (for plot sake). This is Jacob telling us, readers everywhere, who he is. Jacob is a man that, when life turns egregious, will turn his back, walk away, and choose another life. His actions launch a turn of unique events and rightly so, as Jacob Jankowski is a unique man, unlike the multitudes that would stay planted amid in their misfortune.
When action and character remain congruent, action drives the plot, reveals character, and delivers a credible story. (That doesn’t mean characters never act ‘out of character’. They can, they do, and they should; and while their unpredictability catches us readers unaware, the action is no less congruent because it is precisely how this person would respond if this person were suddenly to ‘jump ship’.)
Refer back to your character profile and take a moment to consider who your protagonist is. Foremost, find out how he feels about himself. Does he struggle to gain acceptance and prove his worth to himself or others? Perhaps he’s prone to sullen or hostile and aggressive spells, wreaking havoc at every turn. Then again, maybe he’s insecure, unhappy with himself, paralyzed by feelings of powerlessness and futility.
- Is he placidly self-satisfied? This is a challenge to fictional fate—and a chance for you to leverage people or events to test his complacency.
- Is he the type whose self-confidence swells into egotism, provoking other characters into revolt or promoting a plot of errors?
Discontentment breeds conflict while contentment leaves a character exposed and helpless, vulnerable to other characters, to the fruits of his own folly and the inevitability of change.
What your protagonist sees when he looks in the mirror colors his perceptions of the world—his place in it—and will determine almost everything he does. Conversely, the actions he chooses reveal what he sees when he looks inward at the man he perceives himself to be.
“The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.”
Actions demonstrate our characters’ psyches and personality traits, providing information through engagement—entertaining our readers by showing rather than telling, rendering rather than reporting.
And showing is the operative word. As Fred East has said—
“If you tell the reader that Bull Beezley is a brutal-faced, loose-lipped bully, with snake’s blood in his veins, the reader’s reaction may be, ‘Oh, yeah!’ But if you show the reader Bull Beezley raking the bloodied flanks of his weary, sweat-encrusted pony, and flogging the tottering, red-eyed animal with a quirt, or have him booting in the protruding ribs of a starved mongrel and, boy, the reader believes!”