In the 2005 blockbuster hit Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) returns to Gotham City (ostensibly as an irresponsible playboy loser, and secretly as the unorthodox crime fighter known to the press and the public as Batman) and reencounters his old flame Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Rachel, who’s not yet in the know about Bruce’s alter ego, is unimpressed with his apparent apathy and superficiality. He attempts a cryptic explanation, which doesn’t go over too well: “Inside, I am more.” And Rachel responds, “It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.”
What rings true for Batman also rings true for fictional characters everywhere. If we expect readers to take our characters seriously, if expect them to be impressed by them, if we expect them to remember them long after the back cover has been closed—we can’t rely on the characters’ good intentions or impressive speeches. Just like Bruce Wayne, characters need to do something to prove themselves worth defining.
As writers, it’s often very easy for us to talk on and on about our characters’ intentions. If we’re not careful, we often let our characters’ mouths run away with them, as they spend chapter upon chapter sitting around discussing and planning their next move. But guess what? Most readers don’t care about what your characters are planning to do. They only care when they actually do it.
This is so for a couple of reasons. Reason #1 is easily the most obvious, since it doesn’t take a trigonometry professor to figure out that watching soldiers fighting in a battle is far more interesting than watching the politicians sit around in a boardroom discussing the battle. Action is always more attention grabbing than inaction. This isn’t to say that scenes in the boardroom or periods of inaction are unacceptable—only that they need to be recognized for what they are and appropriately rationed.
The second reason is probably even more important. When we show our characters in action, we move beyond simply telling our readers who these people are (“Joe was a nice guy”), to the much more powerful plane of exhibiting the characters’ actions and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions (“Joe emptied his wallet into the hand of the beggar on the corner”).
Readers find it affirming when what they’ve been told about a character is proven by that character’s actions. When we give our hero the opportunity to exhibit his bravery (or his cowardice), his empathy (or his selfishness), his brilliance (or his stupidity), we are doing more than just imparting the facts. We’re bringing this character to life on the page. We’re making him a living, breathing personality, who acts and reacts in a palpable way, just the same as the rest of us.
Seek out opportunities to let your character define himself by his actions. Don’t let him stand around for pages, doing little more than talking or thinking. Shove him into the mayhem of life and force him to get his hands dirty. Create situations and scenes that will prove his strengths and his weaknesses, instead of forcing the reader to simply take your word for it.
If you do, you’ll emerge with a character—and a story—that’s vibrant, visible, and memorable.
Who knew you could learn so much from the movies?
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