Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Describing your characters through their actions

Jasmine was a nervous young woman who tended to fidget when she was under pressure. Even her clothes seemed to be on edge: they shifted and slid and drooped and were never still. Tony, on the other hand, was too sure of himself. But the more adamant he was about anything, the more Jasmine fluttered. The more she fluttered, the more irritated Tony got, until he was barking orders and she was near tears.

That certainly tells the reader what they need to know about Jasmine and Tony. It is an efficient block of text, but it is not satisfying to read. If people want to read an encyclopedia, they'll read one, but no one should have to wade through sluggish fiction. Writing is an art as well as a craft.

Let's look at the passage again. Normally, we would reveal Jasmine and Tony through their words, and weave enough gestures around the dialogue to show the reader the spoken and unspoken stresses within the scene:

    "Why--why Tony, I didn't think you'd really, you know, want me to go..." Jasmine's voice trailed off as she fingered the fringe of her shawl.
    "Didn't I say so?" Tony glared at her. "Didn't I say so on Monday? We've got to go."
    "But I--I just can't! You know how the Johnsons make me feel, staring at me, always--"
    "For God's sake, they aren't staring at you!" Tony jerked his head towards the bedroom. "Get some proper clothes on. Now!"
    "But, Tony...please, Tony, why can't we...?" She looked beseechingly at him, her pale eyes swimming with tears.

It's easy to reveal character when you can combine action with dialogue. It's less easy to do it through description alone if, at the same time, we are trying to write well. Why would we need to reveal character without dialogue? In an adventure story or thriller, where action is the core of the plot, as a change of pace from dialogue, or simply as an exercise. Let's do that exercise now. Jasmine and Tony are at odds over a party invitation. They have had the conversation we've just overheard. Now they fall silent.

Tony stood in the middle of the room, watching Jasmine shift around its edges, tweaking a cushion, fiddling with the curtains. Jasmine straightened a picture, seeing from the corner of her eye his fists shoved hard into his pockets. He looked embedded in the centre of the room. She closed and piled up the magazines, picked a hair from the back of the chair. He suddenly raised one meaty hand; she squeaked, but he was pointing to the bedroom door. In a flurry of shawl and scarves, she fled.

Even without the preceding dialogue, you would have understood the dynamics between the two characters. Every action has to be the result of inner emotion or purpose. Every action has to propel the plot of the story, both in giving us further information about the characters, building tension (will Tony's impatience spill over into violence?) and speeding along the events. If ever "show, don't tell" was central to writing, it is in passages where actions must speak for all.

Eddy, Jack and Herman slipped down into the ditch, Mike following with the rope. The search light's beam swept over them and they ducked. Jack wiped his mouth with a trembling hand, but was on Eddy's heels as Eddy crawled towards the road. Mike slithered in the mud, the rope tangling under him. Herman extended an impatient hand; Mike doggedly shook his head and started to re-coil the rope by touch. Eddy glanced back, checking them, his eyes lingering on Mike's face. Herman heard the guards first. He tapped Jack's boot. Jack jerked as if shot, then froze. Eddy held up a hand, his head cocked, listening, his Uzi held against his body. The four men waited as motorcycles roared along the road, Jack shuddering as they passed. Eddy waved forward urgently and set a fast pace to the shelter of the culvert. This time Herman reached back and hauled both Mike and rope along in one massive grip.

What do we know about these men? Which one is liable to break under pressure, which one is the natural leader, which one is trying to be tough beyond his strength, which one has the 'older brother' mentality? If the reader can't tell, the writer has failed. But if the reader learned something about the characters while being swept along by the story, the writer has succeeded.