by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker
Readers want to escape into your story world. They want to immerse themselves in your story and vicariously experience what your protagonist is experiencing. Your character’s reactions to what’s going on around them are what make the situation seem real and the character more charismatic, vulnerable and multi-dimensional. If your character’s reactions feel natural and believable to the reader, they will quickly suspend disbelief and become emotionally invested. They’ll be turning the pages with satisfaction.
So in order to bring your POV characters to life on the page and make the readers start to worry about them, it’s critical to constantly show their reactions to what’s happening to and around them. If you just describe events and skip over or minimize characters’ reactions to what’s going on, the characters will seem flat, boring, emotionless – or worse, cold and unfeeling.
Be sure to show your characters’ reactions.
As Jack M. Bickham says, “Readers want to know how your characters feel about what’s happening to them, and want to see their response to the words and actions of others and events unfolding around them.”
Here’s a scene I just made up quickly where a father needs to react more:
He just got into his office when the phone rang. It was his wife. “Hi, hon. What’s up?”
“David, I’ve been trying to reach you for hours. Cassie’s missing! She didn’t show up at school today and her bed hasn’t been slept in! She’s not answering her cell phone and none of her friends have seen her today. You’ve gotta come home.”
“All right, I’ll be there soon.” He grabbed his coat and told the receptionist he’d be gone for the rest of the day.
On the way home, he tried to convince himself there was a good reason for his 14-year-old daughter’s absence.
Not only does this guy not seem to care much about his daughter or be all that concerned that she’s missing, which unintentionally paints him in a bad light, his lack of reaction makes for boring reading, too.
But don't overdo it.
But don't overdo it.
But do make sure the reaction actually fits the situation and is in keeping with the character’s personality and motivations. Cold, stoic, unfeeling characters won’t draw your reader in (unless it’s the villain), but neither will constant emoting, gushing, wailing, raging, or gnashing of teeth.
And have them react immediately, as they would in real life.
To bring your character to life on the page, have him or her react right away to exciting, frustrating, shocking, frightening, or stressful events. Don’t delay the reaction. Immediately following the stressful stimulus, show your POV character's visceral reaction and/or a short, vehement thought-reaction, like No way! Or You’re kidding. Or Oh my god. Or Idiot! Or What the hell? or You wish. Or What a hunk! Or Damn. (Or other swear word.) Or by some other quick emotional or physical reaction.
Two sisters are jogging in the park, deep in conversation when a loud horn behind them makes them jump. Show them jumping (automatic reflex) with maybe a verbal expletive, then looking back and laughing or whatever, before the cyclist passes with a wave or a laugh or a curse, and then they shake their heads and resume their conversation. The visceral reaction of your POV character and her immediate thought-reaction or surprised cry or swear word will make the scene more real to the readers. This is also "show, don't tell." Telling would be "The horn surprised them and made them jump. Then they continued talking." Show their reactions in a more compelling, right-there way.Show the reactions in their natural order.
It’s important to show your character’s visceral reaction to a situation first, before an overt action or words. And show involuntary thought-reactions or word-reactions before more reasoned thought processes and decision-making, which lead to more considered, thoughtful words and conscious actions.
As Ingermanson and Economy put it, “Here’s a simple rule to use: Show first whatever happens fastest. Most often, this means you show interior emotion first, followed by various instinctive actions or dialogue, followed by the more rational kinds of action, dialogue, and interior monologue.”
And don’t skip those first steps! Remember, we’re inside that character’s head and body, so you deepen their character and draw us closer to them by showing us what they’re feeling immediately inside – those involuntary physical and thought reactions that come before controlled, civilized outward reactions.
Jack Bickham points out that credibility results from understanding the stages of response. Character reaction, like human reaction in general, has four individual parts. As writers, we don't necessarily have to put all four on the page at any given point in time, but any reactions we do show should be stated in the order they occur.
First, show the stimulus that has caused them to react.
Then show some or all of these responses, in this order:
1. the character’s visceral response
- adrenaline surging, pulse racing, stomach clenching, heart pounding, mouth drying, flushing, shivering, cold skin, tense muscles, sweating, blushing, shakiness, etc.
2. their unconscious knee-jerk physical action – yelling, gasping, crying out, snatching hand or foot away from source of heat or pain, striking out, etc.
3. their thought processes and decision to act
4. their conscious action or verbal response
If we violate that order, we’re depriving the reader of an opportunity to get further into the head and skin of that character, to feel what they’re feeling, to feel part of the story. And the reader may subconsciously feel disappointed that we didn’t give them a more complete picture, or they’ll wonder how the character really felt, how the event really affected them inside.
We also risk creating a tiny, niggling disquiet in the mind of our readers, a sense that there is something wrong, and that disconnect can bump them out of the story.
Readers and writers – any thoughts on this topic?
See my related articles, “The Emotion Thesaurus,” “Show Visceral Reactions First” and “Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction.”
A great resource for character reactions is The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, September 2012
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)
Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.