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Character Reaction—Make Your Characters Respond

on October 20th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on October 20, 2011

I’ve written a lot about characters at The Editor’s Blog, but I’d like to take a deeper look into character reaction, the response of a character to the actions or words of another character or to a story event.

A character’s reactions can reveal facets of his personality that cannot be revealed by action or dialogue initiated by that character. The actions and words of others that draw a response from a character tell what bothers that character. They indicate issues that are important to the character, issues including those hot-button topics that are guaranteed to set off a character each time they’re visited in the story.

Reactions reveal issues that mean something for a character.

If a character goes after the man who’s gone after his dog, readers know that the dog means something special to that character or that he is possessive/selfish, unwilling to let others touch or hurt what belongs to him.

When a character responds to the actions or words or intentions of another character, the reader notices. She focuses on that response and on what causes it and thinks something’s going on here.

Writers direct readers into key revelations by showing character response.

Conversely, when there is no response, the writer has shown that words or actions or event have little meaning for a character.

If one character confesses a deep and long-held secret to another and the second character has no response—no reaction in action or thought or dialogue—then the writer is saying that such a confession holds no meaning for that second character.

A character does not need to reveal his response overtly to other characters, of course. But if he has no response—if the reader can’t see a response of any kind—then there isn’t one. Characters can keep their emotions hidden from other characters but not from readers. A response hidden from the reader is the same as no response.

While the lack of a response might actually reveal a facet of a character’s personality, that personality should also be revealed by what he does respond to.

How Characters React

Characters respond to events and other characters through what they say or don’t say, what they do and don’t do, what they think, and what they feel.

Dialogue
A character may respond with dialogue, lashing out with angry or passionate words. Or, his words might be torn reluctantly from a character.

Kelly, hand held low on her belly, said, “He’s not yours, Paul.”

Paul, hands tightening, stepped away from her. “Kel—” He clamped his lips together, took another step back. “Damn you.”

Dialogue as a response can be deliberate, allowing one character to steer other characters in the direction he wants them to go, leaving him in charge. Or, the words of his dialogue can be involuntary, pulled from him against his will as a response to what he’s seen or heard from others.

When you consider a response for your characters, think about using dialogue, keeping in mind how it can raise the level of conflict in a scene. Consider using a response that’s out of character for your character. When a character no longer holds back, when he reveals a true response through dialogue, he’s showing who he is and what’s important to him.

Dialogue as a response can thus be quite powerful.

Know that reactions through dialogue can be short and to the point or long and drawn out. Use the method that fits the scene and reveals your character’s mind and heart.

Characters can also hold back a response, but readers should see what it costs the character to refrain from speaking.

A teen boy may promise his sister he won’t tell that she snuck out, may instead end up taking the blame when she scratches the family car coming home at three in the morning. His silence in response to his parents’ interrogation can reveal his love for his sister.

Or it may reveal his desperation to protect her secrets because she’s protecting his even darker secrets.

What a character doesn’t say can be just as powerful as the words he speaks. Yet the reader must know what he’s not saying or must be aware that he’s holding something back. Otherwise silence is only silence.

Action
Characters reveal themselves through action as well as dialogue. So a character can fling his phone across the room when he doesn’t like what he’s just heard. Or he can put his fist through a wall. He can kiss the forehead of his sleeping son, tears held back, at the news the infant doesn’t have leukemia.

Like dialogue, a character’s actions in response to the words or actions of others can be deliberate or involuntary. And the choice of a deliberate action over an involuntary one, or vice versa, will direct the story in a particular direction.

A character whose responses are deliberate is in control, at least to some extent. He seeks to influence other characters by his response. On the other hand, a character who responds because he can’t help himself is a character controlled by others or by his feelings or by a stand he has taken or by his integrity.

An involuntary response reveals the depths of a character, his psyche or his passions. His core being.

When a character can’t help but respond, especially against his will, the reader knows that he’s seeing the true character. He knows at least a part of what moves that character, what drives him. What the character is apart from the trappings that he presents to the people of his world.

A reaction that’s withheld is also key to a character.

If a woman doesn’t reach out to her lover when he confesses his love for her, if she steps away instead or shakes her head at his confession, she can be revealing that she doesn’t love him or that she doesn’t believe him or that she feels unlovable and doesn’t deserve to hear such words from him.

Again, keep in mind that a lack of response speaks not only to other characters but to the reader. When the reader knows there’s a reason for an absence of response, that reveals something about the character that other characters might not be privy to. But a simple lack of response without context or insight simply shows that what has been said or what has happened means nothing to the character.

And if words or actions mean nothing for the character, especially for antagonist or protagonist, what purpose do they serve in your story?

You could be using an event or dialogue to reveal the motivations of a secondary character or to establish tone, but be sure they do something, these events and the words of dialogue you write. They shouldn’t be purposeless. They should affect characters and compel them to react.

Thoughts
A character’s thoughts in response to the actions or words of others are obviously a key to that character’s personality and to those issues most important to him.

When you let readers see into a character’s mind, you permit him access to that character that no one else has. Character thoughts instantly reveal the essence of the man—his motivation, his dreams, his disappointments.

Let readers see a character’s thoughts when you want to present a clear insight into that character. Characters can lie to themselves, but for the most part, a character’s thoughts are an honest reflection of what he’s thinking. If you need a true character reaction untainted by what others think about or feel for a character, present the character’s thoughts as reaction.

Because character thought is so revealing, unless you want to keep him exposed, limit the amount of time spent in a character’s head.

Readers don’t want to know everything about a character in a single moment; leave them something to discover as the story progresses. Even in first-person narration, don’t spill the character’s thoughts in a steady stream from first page to last. Take time for story events and dialogue. Get out of the limited confines of a character’s thoughts and broaden the story to include what happens in a character’s outer world.

Emotions
Like thoughts, character emotions can instantly reveal a character’s personality and what he finds important. Yet emotions can be faked or manipulated by a character to direct the response of others.

That is, emotions can be deliberately released or deliberately held back. But even the manipulation of emotion can reveal character.

A man who allows an emotion to show when he’s with his girlfriend but who withholds emotion when he’s with his wife tells us something about the man.

A man who doesn’t control his emotions but lets them fly as he feels them reveals that man.

A man who always holds back his emotions tells us something about the manner of man he is. Keep in mind that at least the reader must have some understanding of what’s being held back in order for this technique to work. An emotion that’s held back can be a reaction. But if the reader doesn’t know what’s held back, if the reader sees no emotion, then that translates to a lack of reaction.

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Character action and reaction propel the forward motion of a story. Response and reaction and the response to that reaction are what take readers from opening page to resolution. If characters didn’t react to what other characters were doing or saying or feeling, then there’d be no cohesion, no story threads drawing disparate story elements together.

Consider other characters’ reactions when you write a first character’s actions. What will Janelle do when Walter forgets to stop by the bank to make a payment on their credit line, a lapse that costs them $225 that they don’t have?

What is Janelle’s response when Walter tells her he forgot to stop by the bank because he’d been fired earlier in the day and now they have no money coming in to pay their debts?

What kind of response would Janelle show if Walter confessed he robbed the bank on the way home, taking money out instead of paying the bank back?

The reaction you give a character will direct the story. Each time a character responds, you take characters and readers deeper into your fiction.

Character reaction will also affect the tone of a scene, the conflict between characters, and the tension in the reader.

Reactions must make sense for the moment, for the character, for the genre, and for the depth of response necessary for the scene.

Work and rework the connection between action and reaction in your stories so that conflict rises and story events come together to drive characters to the inevitable end you have planned for them.

Give character reaction the proper emphasis for each scene. Vary the level of response—one character shouldn’t always react with the same degree of emotion, and scenes would feel flat without a variety of intensities.

Don’t neglect reaction and its importance for both revelation of character and forward movement of plot.

Give your characters the reactions the story demands, responses that fit their personalities and the adventure you’ve crafted for them.

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5 Responses to “Character Reaction—Make Your Characters Respond”

  1. Well! That was a long but very worthwhile post. I’m personally very wary of revealing direct thoughts (though I do). If possible, I like to see character revealed through action/reaction

  2. Loved this post. You raise a good point:

    “A response hidden from the reader is the same as no response.”

    I had to rework a scene after realising that two secondary characters do not react whatsoever during an argument that involves four other characters. Under the circumstances they do not respond verbally, but had I not given them a physical reaction, their inclusion in the scene would have been pointless.

    Thanks for the post! :)

  3. Dad, I like to see characters respond in a variety of ways, though I recognize the appeal of action as a response. Sometimes the direct revelation of thoughts can come across as too much telling. Yet, when a character’s thoughts come out clear and deep and strong, readers can get hit with an emotional jolt they won’t get any other way. I like when that happens too.

    I guess I do enjoy the variety of possible responses and the many ways we can manipulate story to achieve our goals.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  4. Kai, I’ve recently seen quite a few non-responses in manuscripts. And I’m left wondering why characters don’t react to the wild actions of the other characters. Fiction loses some of its aura of truth when characters don’t react as 3-D people would.

    Plus, why waste perfectly good events and inciting dialogue by ignoring them? Instead, put them to use to rile other characters and push the tension and conflict to a new level.

    You sound like you’re on the right track, recognizing that characters in scenes should have a purpose—or two—and that all characters should react to events and dialogue.

    Good luck with your writing.

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