When it comes to character action, the old advice is still the best advice: Show, don’t tell.
If you haven’t heard that from a creative writing course, or every writing craft book ever, you’ve probably heard it as sage internet wisdom. Heed it well, dear writer, because in those three words is the key to building characters who live and breathe, and who take a lot of the weight of storytelling off of your shoulders.
This advice is typically and primarily given to authors as a way to shape the story itself—bring the reader into the action of your book by describing the action, not by talking about the action. But it can also show us who a character is by the way he or she reacts or responds, or by how others react or respond to them.
Let’s take a look at how to use action to show who your characters are in a story.
A man walks into a bar…
A man of sleight build walks into a biker bar. He’s wearing a suit—light brown pants and sportscoat, brown leather shoes and belt, pressed white shirt tucked into his waistline, dark patterned tie. He looks unassuming, but definitely out of place. Every set of eyes in the joint follows him to the bar, where he bellies up and asks for a Zima.
Snickers. Laugher. Guys playing pool smirk, men and women wearing biker cuts guffaw loudly.
What do we know about this guy?
Just based on the action of the scene so far, we can’t really say we have much of a grasp on his character. But we’re already making assumptions about him based on what he’s done, and the reaction of everyone else around him.
First, let’s look at the suit. As items of clothing go, a suit in a biker bar is an immediate flag. It’s out of place. It’s upsetting our expectations (and clearly those of the bikers as well).
This is a clue. And there’s more, something more subtle.
Our guy doesn’t seem fazed by the reaction he’s getting. He seems nonchalant. He moves to the bar and orders his drink without any apparent acknowledgment of or concern over how people see him.
He orders a Zima—not the most masculine of drinks, and in a place like this that gets noticed. So if he’s ordering it here, without care for how it’s perceived, he’s either completely ignorant and unaware, or completely unconcerned. Either of those is a fuse for something explosive to happen in the story, but both conditions could also tell us something about our guy.
There’s more to Suit than meets the eye.
From the setup, we don’t know any more than this about his character but take a second and consider the tension that you’re already feeling from this scene.
Part of that tension comes from the setting: It’s a biker bar, after all. Those can be dangerous places. Seeing someone on the small side come in and sit down with complete nonchalance does something to disrupt our expectations, and that sets us on edge.
We have a bit of cognitive dissonance to deal with: We simultaneously fear for this guy and are wary of him. We’re on the edge of our seat, waiting to read what comes next.
The reaction of the bikers to the protagonist also sends us signals. It’s what triggers our sense of danger on behalf of the guy. But it also emphasizes that he’s out of his element, and everyone else in the scene notices. Their response to this character we’re already identifying with makes us feel like we’re in danger, too. It connects us to him. It makes us feel the eyes on us, hear the laughter and comments at our expense, sense that trouble could be brewing and coming our way.
And yet, our just guy sits, orders his Zima, and nothing else.
There isn’t enough detail to really tell us everything about our guy, but the scene starts by putting him in the wrong place for his archetype.
He’s some thin, weak-looking business dude, from all we’ve seen so far. No way he belongs among this tatted-up crowd of toughs, pledges and bosses unwinding after a day of hard riding the open road. He’s in the wrong place.
By the way—did you notice we get a bit of an idea about those characters as well, just based on their reactions? We know this is a rough crowd, though most of them seem willing to let a fool has his Zima, unmolested. For now.
Eight sentences over two paragraphs, and we already have the opening of an intriguing story. And all of it comes from the characters’ actions and responses (or lack of response) to those actions. Other than the brief setting of “biker bar,” the entire scene plays out through each action the character takes, and all characterization is based on description and reactions.
The power here comes from meeting and upsetting expectations, and then showing the response and reaction of the characters within the scene.
As this particular scene evolves, there are any number of ways to show who the key characters are, just by showing what they say or do (or do not do) in response to the action of the scene.
Drinks on Me…
Let’s have one of our new biker friends step to the bar and put a big, beefy hand on our guy Suit’s shoulder.
Biker leans in close, the smell of beer on his breath is overpowering. He grins at our guy through yellowed and missing teeth. The five-day stubble on his face does little to hide the sun- and wind-burned patches of red on his face. His hair is long and unkempt, tied back into a ponytail, a mixture of black and brown and strands of grey.
“I think you said you wanted to get me a beer,” the biker growls in a smirk, his tone threatening.
Our guy looks at him, unflinching, then turns to face the entire bar. “I think I said I wanted to buy everyone a round,” he declares loudly.
So, there’s no intimidation in our guy Suit at all. No sign that he feels threatened. No sense of worry. When Biker implies a threat and pulls some power moves, Suit doesn’t even blink. He just turns the tables with a magnanimous gesture.
Cool. As. Ice.
So again, we see some give and take with our characters, and even though we still don’t know what’s going on, we learn some new details immediately.
First, Biker is revealed as a tough guy and a bully in just a few minor actions. His description gives us some insight into who he is: The five-day stubble, the unkempt hair, the sun- and wind-burn. We know that he’s tough, that he rides without a helmet. His stained and missing teeth tell us he’s probably a smoker, and that he doesn’t pay much heed to a dentist or even simply brushing. His beer breath and demand for a free beer tell us he’s likely an alcoholic.
These are all assumptions, and in part they rely upon a stereotype to convey Biker’s character.
But look at the way he interacts with Suit—the action that Biker takes.
He gets in close. He grins. He puts a hand on our protagonist. He makes a veiled threat simply by stating an unwarranted assumption, I think you said you wanted to get me a beer.
This guy is intimidating.
Except he isn’t intimidating our protagonist.
The action Suit takes in response reveals more of his character to us. He doesn’t cringe or cower. He doesn’t protest. He doesn’t even blink. He simply turns and tells the room that drinks are on him.
Think about the message that sends.
First, it’s a snub of Biker. That implies some sort of courage on the part of Suit. In fact, if Suit was living up (or down) to our expectations for him, he’d swallow hard, nod, glance nervously at the bartender and order the man his beer. He’d even tip.
But that turn. That announcement. We didn’t use an exclamation mark at the end of his declaration, so we can’t even imply nervousness. His announcement was loud, but flat: I think I said I wanted to buy everyone a round.
And look at how he rephrased that declaration. He used the bully’s own words, turning them and repurposing them.
That was a challenge.
Suit is defying Biker, and it tells us a lot about him.
For some reason, Suit has no fear. And that makes us ask, “Why?”
You Some Kind of Wise Guy?
Our friend Suit turns back to the bar without a glance at Biker. He returns to his Zima, sipping slowly, savoring. He even closes his eyes.
Biker, momentarily stunned by Suit’s action, doesn’t know what just happened. He only knows it makes him mad. He grips Suit’s shoulder harder, leans in closer. “You disrespectin’ me?”
Suit, apparently oblivious to the iron grip on his shoulder, looks to the bartender. “Get this man his beer.”
The bartender, watching everything in fascination, nods and complies. Biker, taking up the mug of beer, starts to say something to Suit, but instead leaves, returning to his game of pool.
The mystery deepens.
This scene has three characters, and we’re learning something about each of them.
First, the bartender. We can assume a few things about our new friend. He’s done nothing to stop Biker from intimidating their suited guest, so he’s probably just as wary of the stranger as anyone. Anomalies make us nervous. And so we aren’t surprised to learn that he’s “watching in fascination.”
That one line shows us a lot about the bartender. But what follows tells us more.
Suit tells him to give Biker his beer, and the bartender nods and complies. That moment represents a transfer of power.
It starts with Biker, using physical force and intimidation to try to get a rise out of Suit. He squeezes the man’s shoulder, he leans in closer, invading Suit’s personal space further. He casts another veiled threat—You disrepectin’ me?
From these actions and that one shred of dialogue, we immediately learn that the Biker feels threatened. We also learn one of his principal values: He demands respect.
The threat is an existential one—if you disrespect me, I will feel like less of who I am. It’s not an explicit statement, but we know it’s there because of the way Biker reacts to Suit’s declaration of free drinks for everyone.
Biker is trying to re-establish his power over Suit. But it fails.
Suit’s response to Biker’s first volley, trying to intimidate him by demanding a beer, is to disempower Biker by agreeing but expanding—rather than giving in and giving Biker what he wants, Suit offers the price to everyone equally. That takes the power of the demand away from Biker and transforms it into the power of authority when Suit gives everyone a free drink. It turns the crowd from allies of Biker to allies of Suit.
Biker’s second volley, asking if Suit is disrespecting him, is a chance for Biker to reclaim that lost power. And again, Suit ignores him, and instead appeals to the audience (the bartender and us), this time actually giving Biker what he’d asked for from the beginning: A free beer. Except this time Suit is giving it on his own terms, wresting all remaining power from Biker even as he does exactly has Biker had asked.
Again, the impact of Suit’s response to Biker shifts the alliance of the audience from Biker to Suit. The Bartender, watching to see how things play out, follows Suit’s orders and gives Biker a beer, almost like a consolation prize.
Biker is deflated and disempowered. He could bluster more, maybe even turn to actual physical violence, but in this example, he just takes his beer and leaves.
So the key here is the balance between reaction and response.
The Aforementioned Balance Between Reaction and Response
For our purposes, we’ll distinguish between reaction and response this way:
Reaction is an involuntary and instinctual consequence to an action or event, such as shouting “Hey!” when someone slams into you on the sidewalk.
Response is a calculated and intentional consequence to an action or event, such as pausing before responding to an insult, or simply walking away.
In our interaction between Biker and Suit, we can see the dynamics of reaction versus response play out in both direct and subtle ways. For the most part, we can determine that Biker is more reactionary, while Suit is more responsive.
When Biker first threatens Suit, it’s an intentional response to Suit’s presence in the bar. Suit could react at this point, showing fear by swallowing hard, nodding, sweating, telling the bartender to give Biker anything he wants. Indeed, this is the expected reaction, the one we’ve upset in our story.
Instead, Suit responds by turning and extending the offer of a free drink to everyone.
This response has the effect of disarming Biker, but it has an additional side effect of making Biker feel disrespected. Biker’s reaction, then, is to become even more threatening, to use physical intimidation and warning language. Biker’s reaction is a result of lifelong conditioning, and thus involuntary.
But just look at how those two actions—reaction versus response—create a whole lot of drama and energy in a very short scene.
As one character reacts and the other responds, we see Suit absolutely dominate the scene, taking power from Biker in smooth, subtle action. With only a few words, and nothing else, Suit…
- Sends a message to Biker: “I’m not afraid of you.”
- Sends a message to the bar and to the bartender: “I have all the power here.”
- Sends a message to us, the reader: “There’s more to me than you’d expect.”
This is a dynamic you’ll definitely want to explore in your fiction. It can be a shortcut of sorts to characterization, because without having to describe personalities of each individual, you can reveal their characterization through their response or reaction.
And just as with our examples above, one tenet of characterization that you can reveal and control in the story is the confidence and competence levels of your characters.
In the scene we’re building, Suit is our protagonist and Biker is our antagonist. As with all stories, the two “do battle,” though in this case it’s a battle of subtle exertion of will. Rather than have the two duke it out with fists or weapons, we’re showing them meet on a battlefield that is entirely mental.
We start with some significant contrasts between our two characters:
- Suit is physically unintimidating, while Biker is physically intimidating
- Suit is quiet and contemplative, while Biker is direct and boisterous
- Suit is calm and responsive, while Biker is volatile and reactive
- Suit is unafraid, Biker is uncertain
The more closely we examine the brief interaction between the two, the more we discover how different they really are. But more important, the more we discovery how rapidly our impression of the protagonist changes. We discover more about Suit in a few sentences of near inaction than we could have in paragraphs of exposition.
And what’s important to note is that we, as the author, control the revelation of character by controlling their reaction or response. We reveal each character in a story by their actions.
How a character moves can say a lot about them. Just entering a room can reveal scads of information about your characters.
Consider Cosmo Kramer.
One of the primary characters on the hit series Seinfeld, Kramer was a dynamo of physical expression. From the way he styled his hair, to the hipster clothes he wore, you could just see who he was.
And then he would enter a room.
Kramer could never simply knock on a door and wait for someone to check the peephole and let him in. Instead, he exploded into a room. He gripped the doorknob with one lanky-fingered hand and burst into the room like he was escaping a fire in the hallway. Often, he appeared almost as if he’d been inflated as he entered, as if his body was building itself from spare parts just as the door opened.
That entrance became a signature for the character. And it told us a lot about him, even before his dialogue began.
Beyond making an entrance, though, physical action can reveal tons about a character. Does he or she hold a door open for an elderly person? Do they stoop to pet a dog? Do they startle at the sound of a car backfiring? Do they flinch if someone raises a hand too quickly?
Those physical actions and reactions tell a chunk of backstory without the need to burn paragraphs or pages in the effort.
Consider our friend Suit.
When he enters, he “bellies up to the bar.” We don’t see him pause in the doorway, look around apprehensively, or nervously shuffle forward. He moves with more confidence than he should have.
He orders a beverage (do they still sell Zima?). Based on what little we’ve read he doesn’t appear to be shy about it. He orders comfortably, unconcerned.
When Biker approaches him, attempting physical and psychological intimidation, Suit responds with even more subtle confidence. He turns, doesn’t respond to Biker, and tells the bar that drinks are on him. He further ignores Biker by telling the bartender to hand the man a beer. Suit is cool, and unconcerned with anything Biker does. His actions show it.
In the film Captain America: The First Avenger, there’s a scene that intentionally reveals the inner character of Steve Rogers, purely through action.
As a skinny, weak recruit, Rogers (Chris Evans) is enduring the physical training of bootcamp alongside much bigger, tougher-looking men. When Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) tosses a grenade onto the ground, in a test to prove that Rogers isn’t their guy, he and everyone else is surprised to see Rogers shout a warning and leap onto the grenade—an act that, if the grenade had been real, would have surely killed him.
It’s a funny scene, but it does exactly the job the writers intended. Steve Rogers, weak and scrawny as he was, turned out to be the bravest of all of them. He was worthy of being included in the Super Soldier program, to become Captain America.
In that scene, we learn a lot about not only Rogers’ character but also the character of Colonel Philips. The gruff, irascible, hard-as-nails Colonel doesn’t expect much from the weak little man before him. He expects Rogers to fail, to fall short.
It’s through the act upsetting that character’s expectations that we get to see our protagonist shine.
But there’s more to using physical action for characterization than demonstrating extremes. Does your character interrupt people when they’re talking? Do they tend to take charge in groups? Are they jerks about it, or gracious about it? Do they shout in anger or respond in cold, flat tones?
These choices you make, about the way your characters interact with others, tell a detailed story. How your character behaves physically is an instant indicator of who they are.
Physical action can be far more revealing than exposition, when it comes to showing the timbre of character. It’s a tool you should learn to use wisely.
Thought & Emotion
One advantage of written storytelling over films and television is the ability authors have for sharing what’s in a character’s head.
To a degree, we can get some insight into what a character thinks on screen via tools such as body language and expression. Humans are amazing at picking up on subtle non-verbal cues, and a talented actor plays to this. A talented director knows how to frame and cut a scene to intensify that signal and ensure that the audience catches it.
But short of having a character narrate their thoughts to us, we don’t get to absolutely know what a character is thinking.
On the page, however, we become mind readers.
Or rather, our characters become telepathic.
This power to convey the actual thoughts of a character to a reader is astounding, and endlessly useful. This is the most direct way to actually know a character.
Just as with our use of physical action, we can demonstrate a character’s qualities through his or her emotional response to and thoughts about some inciting event.
In the scene we’ve been building, we don’t currently have any direct insight into the thoughts and emotions of Suit or Biker or anyone else. But let’s take a look at what happens just after the confrontation between Suit and Biker, once Biker receives his free beer:
Biker returns to the pool table as Suit sips his Zima.
I really have to stop antagonizing people who don’t know any better, Suit thinks.
Let’s stop there. Because in two sentences, we’ve hinted at yet more of Suit’s character.
Not only is he unafraid of Biker, or anyone else, he’s chastising himself for playing games with them, as if he feels sorry for them and pities them.
Suit is not worried about any threat of violence from Biker, because in his mind, Biker is no threat at all.
It’s all in that phrasing: …people who don’t know any better.
Any better than what? We can’t yet say, but we can certainly imply that Suit sees himself as somehow elevated over Biker, that he sees himself as a bigger threat than Biker could be. We can pick that up in one line, and it sets the tone for Suit, telling us all we need to know. Well… almost all we need to know. There’s the whole rest of the story to contend with.
The point here is that by using the thoughts of the character we can reveal a lot about them directly, rather than obliquely as we do with physical action. But it can still be tightly controlled.
Emotion is another tool, and like thought it can give us insight into the character from the inside out.
Consider these two pieces of internal dialogue:
I hope that settles it. I hope he doesn’t come back. That’s the last of the money. That’s the last bit of charity I have. I don’t know what else I can do.
That settles it. That’s his last pass at trying to tough-guy me. That’s the last bit of charity I give. Not sure what I’ll do next.
Those two sets of thoughts are similar in verbiage, but far different in tone. Neither is panic or abject terror, but the first does convey someone who is at the end of his rope, and just wants to get through all of this. The second tells us that this is someone who’s trying to just get along without resorting to… well, something else. Violence seems the most likely outcome.
The first set of thoughts is a quiet plea. The second set of thoughts is an unspoken threat. And from each, we come to know the character in a deeper way. Maybe not in his entirety, but enough to give us a sense of who he is and how he thinks of himself.
Using emotions is a powerful way to show the reader just enough about a character that you don’t have to spend pages explaining their actions and reactions. Even a single thought can set the tone of a character, including minor characters, and lacing that thought with emotion makes it all the more powerful.
But you can express emotion through other forms of action besides thought.
He shivered, gripping his bottle of Zima tightly. The sweat beaded on his side, dripping in a run from his armpit to his waistline. He felt like throwing up.
He clenched his jaw. Briefly, only for a second. When it relaxed, so did he. Minor offenses, that’s all these were. He’d dealt with worse. He’d give this guy a chance, but only one.
We don’t have to have the writer tell us what Suit is feeling in these two passages. We know it by his demeanor. In the first he’s afraid. In the second, he’s annoyed, even angry.
In the first, his emotion paints him as weak, hopeless, on the verge of losing it.
In the second, his emotion depicts him as tough, seasoned, capable, and above all, in control.
And it goes deeper.
In the first, he’s reacting. His response is mostly unconscious, the result of feeling fear and having no control over it.
In the second, he’s responding, controlling his anger, letting it and the offense pass. We can feel the rage, but he keeps it in check.
These two conditions tell us more about him as a character as well. We get his measure by what he both does and does not do. His emotions tell us a story in as few words as possible.
The final bit of character revelation we’ll cover is dialogue—what our characters say, how they say it, who they say it to.
In our scene, we can already see some of the power of dialogue in demonstrating character.
When Biker says, “I think you said you wanted to get me a beer,” it’s an implied threat. He doesn’t say a thing about taking Suit out back, or maybe just decking him where he sits. Instead, he tells Suit what to think and what to do. He’s establishing his dominance.
When we read this, we know that the parts left out of the dialogue are the threat. The words, the verbiage Biker uses, are just a vehicle for conveying the unspoken. Implication and intimidation are the tools Biker chooses.
Suit matches that, tool for tool, when he responds, “I think I said I wanted to buy everyone a round.”
Biker directs his comment to Suit, as a threat.
Suit directs his comment to the room, as defiance and diffusion.
In fact, in our scene, Suit never once speaks directly to Biker, while Biker only speaks to Suit. And yet we know they’re communicating with both each other and the entire room at the same time in both instances.
How’d that work out?
Biker may only be directing his dialogue to Suit, but it’s for the benefit of everyone in the room to hear. This, in a sense, dilutes Biker’s power in this situation. It makes him a servant of the room, so that if Suit refuses, Biker will have to do something about it, or risk losing status among his peers.
Suit, on the other hand, directs his comments outward, but his real audience is Biker. Suit seizes power in that situation by appealing to the same audience Biker appealed to, outwardly, but by sending a message meant solely for Biker, intrinsically.
And the specific language itself helps Suit turn the tables on Biker.
Biker’s demand is self-centric—buy me a beer.
Suit’s response is centered on the group—buy everyone a beer.
The first actually places Biker in the position of being against both Suit and the entire room. He’s demanding that his need or desire be met, or else he’ll make Suit pay in some other way. But the second turns the tables, pitting the room solely against Biker while making Suit the hero. Suit shifts the balance of authority in the room with a subtle change in dialogue.
That control is the same as your own—dialogue should allow you to communicate not only between characters, but between characters and readers.
What Condition Your Exposition is In
When using speech to demonstrate character, you’ll want to avoid one cardinal sin: Thou shalt not use dialogue for exposition.
In other words, don’t use dialogue to tell the reader that “Biker is a bad guy.” Use it instead to show that Biker is a bad guy. Or that Suit is a good guy. Dialogue should reveal character, not explain it.
Of course… rules are meant to be broken. And you can certainly find brilliant examples of dialogue being used for exposition. But don’t let it become your habit. Like all rule breaking, it only has impact if it isn’t something you do all the time.
Reveal through Action
The best closing advice I can give on revealing character rather than explaining it is this: Let the action reveal the character.
As a discovery writer, I often don’t know the nature of my characters until they reveal themselves to me. I learn a character is duplicitous when they betray my protagonist. I learn that a character is weak and spineless when they high-tail it out of a fight scene. I learn that a character is crafty and intelligent when they outsmart everyone. Their actions, dialogue, and thoughts reveal them to me.
This is what you’re trying to do for your reader.
It’s easy to simply state up front, “Biker was a mean and cruel jackal.” But that has no action to it, and thus non compulsion. No movement. No life.
Showing Biker kick a dog as he mounts his bike, or shove a smaller, weaker person aside at the bar—now that reveals what a creep the guy is. We despise him a lot more, when we see how he acts.
Keep that in mind. Determine, from the start, that you’ll say less about your characters and show a lot more. Reveal them to the reader by what they do and what they say, rather than what you say about them.
You’ll find those characters coming alive on the page, for you and for the reader.