Do you choose your friends for their actions?

Are you first drawn to them based on how they look?

Or, do you choose them for their personality?

I’m guessing it’s probably a little bit of all of those things.

Now, think about your favorite character(s) from a novel. What do you like about them? Is it what they do? Their appearance? Or, their bravery, humility, or sassy attitude?

Again, it’s probably a little bit of each of those elements. One of the biggest challenge as writers is to include not only what our characters look like and how they act but also how they feel about what’s happening, or their reactions and attitudes to the situations they’re in.

It’s often why we like them the most. We relate to how they feel.

In my experience teaching writing, I’ve learned that writers tend to focus on one or the other, action or reaction, and the trick is balancing both when creating a character. I tend to fall into the action category. My writing partners seem to be always asking me, “So, what’s your character’s response to that?”

I always know how they feel about situations, but sometimes I keep it in my head instead of putting it on the page. It’s important to remember to let your reader in on your character’s feelings too.

Our favorite writers do this so incredibly well that it’s seamless. It’s hard to pull the reaction out of the action, but let’s try.

Here’s an example from Sarah Dessen’s novel, Keeping the Moon. I’m going to copy the dialogue and action, without any of the internal reaction that she has included. This is from the first few pages of the novel when the main character Colie is saying goodbye to her mother, Kiki.

“Kiki,” said the assistant. “We’ve got to go if you want to make that flight.”

“All right, all right.” My mother put her hands on her hips and looked me up and down. “You’ll keep up your work outs, right? It would be a shame to gain all that weight back.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ll eat healthy – I told you I”m sending along the complete Kiki line – so you’ll have your foods with you at Mira’s.”

“You told me.”

She let her hands drop to her sides.

“Oh, Colie,” she said. and she pulled me close, burying her face in the jet-black hair that had almost made her have a total breakdown when I came to breakfast that morning. “Please don’t be mad at me, okay?”

I hugged her back.

“I love you,” she whispered as we walked toward the train.

“I love you too,” I said. When I got to my seat I looked out the window and found her standing by the station door, her assistant still fidgeting beside her. She waved, in all that purple, and I waved back.

This is solid dialogue. There’s some action that conveys the emotion. But it feels somehow stark.This is a big moment for Colie. She’s leaving her mother for an entire summer, and she doesn’t want her mom to leave. Are you wondering what she thinks about the whole thing?

Now let me share with you how Ms. Dessen actually wrote it, with all of the character’s reactions intact. It’s so much better!

You’ll see how she’s able to develop all the characters by continually slipping into Colie’s mind and sharing her reaction to the situation.

“Kiki,” said the assistant, whose name I hadn’t even bothered to learn because she’d be gone by th time I got back, fired before they even reached the airport, probably. “We’ve got to go if you want to make that flight.” [Here we learn that Kiki is a bit of a handful with a temper, and Colie has zero sympathy for the assistant.]

“All right, all right.” My mother put her hands on her hips — the classic Kiki Sparks aerobic stance–and looked me up and down. “You’ll keep up your work outs, right? It would be a shame to gain all that weight back.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ll eat healthy – I told you I”m sending along the complete Kiki line – so you’ll have your foods with you at Mira’s.”

“You told me.”

She let her hands drop to her sides, and in that one brief moment I saw my mother again. Not Kiki Sparks, fitness guru and personal trainer of the masses. Not the talk show Kiki, the infomercial Kiki, the Kiki that smiled out from a million weightloss products worldwide. Just my mom. [We learn here that Kiki is super famous and Colie misses her mom. She wants the mom Kiki back.]

But now the train was coming.

“Oh, Colie,” she said. and she pulled me close, burying her face in the jet-black hair that had almost made her have a total breakdown when I came to breakfast that morning. “Please don’t be mad at me, okay?”

I hugged her back, even though I told myself I wouldn’t. I’d pictured myself stony and silent as the train pulled out of the station, my angry face the last image she’d take with her on her European Summer FlyKiki Fitness Tour. But I as the opposite of my mother, in more than just the fact that I always had bad intentions. And that was as far as I got. [So, Colie wants to be tough and strong. It sounds like she intends to be “bad” but can’t always follow through. Maybe she’s a little bit kinder than she gives herself credit for.]

“I love you,” she whispered as we walked toward the train.

Then take me with you, I thought, but she was already pulling back, wiping her eyes, and I knew if I said it the words would fall between us and just lie there, causing more trouble than they were worth. [So she is kind. She doesn’t want to create any more trouble between her and her mom.]

“I love you too,” I said. When I got to my seat I looked out the window and found her standing by the station door, her assistant still fidgeting beside her. She waved, in all that purple, and I waved back, even as the lump formed hard and throbbing in the back of my throat. [She’s really sad that she’s leaving her mom. No matter how angry or frustrated her mom makes her, she loves her.]

Do you see the difference in these two pieces? So much is added with the italicized reactions. Following over half of the spoken words, Dessen has added emotional reaction or thoughts which do so much to create these characters and develop them fully.

Weaving a character’s thoughts and reactions into a story can do so much to develop your entire story – characters, their relationships, the plot, the suspense…pretty much everything. Now you try it.

Put it in Action

1) Grab a recent scene you’ve written for a story and read through it.

2) Add at least three INTERNAL reactions that help convey how your character feels about the situation that they’re in. This would be thoughts that they’re thinking about the people or situation.

3) Go back through your scene a second time.

4) This time, add at least three EXTERNAL reactions. This might be more dialogue that conveys how they’re feeling. Or it could be a change in how they’re standing or sitting. Perhaps it’s a facial expression or a feeling that they get inside. Make these reactions as physical as you can.

Which version do you like better?

Do you have any strategies or favorite ways to add character reaction? Share in the comments below.