Make Your Character Reactions Twice as Interesting

Character reactions are just as important as character actions—if not, arguably, more important. What makes me say that? After all, character actions usually headline the story. When you look at a book cover, the character is always doing something. Wielding that sword. Kissing that dude. Running from that killer. So where are all these important reactions I’m going on about?

As you know, there are two parts to every scene: the scene (where the action happens) and the sequel (where reactions to those actions happen). Although the scene is the site of all those exciting and mind-blowing action set pieces, the sequel is actually the glue that holds your story together.

Without convincing and consistent character reactions to every single important event, the causal realism of your story falls apart. But even more important, readers love character reactions. Sequel scenes are almost always my favorite part in any story. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m an action girl. I love my action stories. But without interesting reactions to prove the characters are interesting, the action (whether it’s explosions or romance) is ultimately nothing more than eye candy.

In the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and its near perfect use of sequel scenes), I re-watched Thor: The Dark World and couldn’t help but compare. Now before I start being critical, let me say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and felt it lived up to pretty much everything I hoped it would be—with a few major exceptions.

The most important of those exceptions is the lack of development in the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster. Aside from the fact that this oversight left the marvelous Natalie Portman with basically nothing to do, it also robbed the film of weight and depth that could have been added in just a few quick scenes.

So much emotional, personal stuff happens in this movie. Thor’s mom dies because he’s brought his sick girlfriend home. Even if she stays healthy, Jane’s going to live out her life and die in what basically amounts to a single year in Thor’s life. Thor’s dad is mad at him for his highly impractical romantic choices. And Thor decides he’d rather live that year with Jane than be king.

But Thor and Jane never talk about it. Sure, Thor reacts. He and Odin talk. He and Loki talk. He and Sif even talk. But he and Jane—one of the most important catalyst characters in the story—never share reactions.

And that leads us to our main point: It’s not enough for just one character to react. Readers need to see how all of your important characters are reacting. Even better, they need to see the character reacting together. Want to instantaneously get twice as much out of any character reaction? Easy-peasy. All you need to do is have him share his reaction with another character.

Tell me your opinion: Do your two most important characters share important reactions in conversation?


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great post! It is *so* important that characters communicate. I just watched Thor2 last week, and I didn’t notice that part, but now that you mention it… Hmmm. Maybe they’re saving that aspect for a Thor3?

    As for my characters, sometimes they don’t communicate like they should, but there’s always a reason. I’m actually working to refine that a bit in a few of my scenes in my second novella because I have a few scenes where my POV character (not the main) is observing an interrogation alongside his boss. There’s a lot of emotional turmoil wrapped up inside him, and that’s why he’s observing rather than in there alongside the interrogator. Definitely one area to clean up when I get back to editing it. 😉 Most of the time, though, my characters can’t stop talking. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would argue that this isn’t the sort of thing you can reasonably save from one story to the next. The lack of it weakens the current story. Make the current story too weak, and what incentive will readers/viewers have to journey on to the next installment?

      • True…

        They need a confrontation between Jane and Lady Sif! Sif could give Jane the what-for.

        Of course, you know Marvel is (probably) going to make Thor 3. I’ve heard they have plans for movies through 2025.

        • That would have been an interesting scene. I also wished they played just a *little* bit more with the subtext in the scene when Sif comes to break Jane out of her room.

  2. That’s an area I think I have covered. And I have Stephen King to thank for it. Really. I grew up reading King (and checking behind shower curtains). And even at the age of 13, I noticed that his characters would always have these deep conversations in between vampire\St. Bernard\ghost\’58 Plymouth Fury attacks. It’s something that stuck with me. It can be taken too far, though. I recently read “House” by Peretti and Dekker (one star…I was generous). One of the big issues were the agonizingly long scenes of discussion between the characters while a madman was bearing down on them. Readers have a sence of time. If you need a long sequal, better get your folks to a bar, where they can speak without the impending threat of zombie attack.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a super-important point. As crucial as sequels are to great stories, they can definitely be overdone. Every story has to find a balance between scenes and sequels – action and reaction. Too much reaction will kill a story just as dead as will too much action.

  3. Really great post, and very important. I often see a bit of an opposite problem, though: Characters react after the fact just fine, but fail to show a reaction *in the moment*. And that turns reaction into a conflict issue, because readers take their cues from the characters. If characters aren’t reacting to something, then readers won’t either, because it doesn’t feel all that significant.

    Of course, you don’t want your reactions to be redundant, but for an event convincingly to hold significance both to character and reader, there needs to be both an immediate and subsequent impact.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Part of the reason for this, I find, is that, as writers, we’re so in sync with our characters’ in-the-moment reactions that we sometimes don’t even realize we’re *not* sharing them. Beta readers are helpful in identifying the lapses we’re blind to.

  4. PC Reese says

    Excellent point… although my problem in books I read is often the opposite. I do not want or need a total rehashing of every action scene blow by blow. Reaction should, as you noted, be about the emotional impact of what occurred not a reason for the writer to REwrite the action scene all over again and REhash it through each character’s pov and pile on all their angst until you find yourself skipping from action to action to avoid the dragging cesspool of over-wrought reactions.
    Balance is required. In all things.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a great point. The last thing we want to do with a reaction scene is turn it into “as-you-know-Bob” scene about stuff the reader already knows! As with scenes, sequels have to be about moving the plot forward–which means exploring new depths within the characters.

  5. I agree! I can’t help but wonder if the reason Jane’s story is treated this way is because she is mostly considered the “romantic lead”, but doesn’t really have her own story. She’s never a whole character, even in the first movie, mostly acting like a horny teenager around Thor’s good looks. So…this may have been a matter of the writers thinking she wasn’t important enough to give a reaction to.

    As for my writing, if my writing is ever to become famous, it will be for my ensemble sequel scenes. 😉 In the Urban Fantasy I am writing, there is a group that is mounting a rebellion, and there are plenty of ensemble scenes in which the characters react to the developments in their rebellion in their own character’s typical way. Those are always the most fun to write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a shame she’s not fleshed out more, because she has the groundwork to be a fantastic character. In all fairness, Dark World is an insanely busy movie with a ton of ground to cover, so I totally get why she was slighted. But it’s still a shame – especially since the lapse could easily have been corrected in two or three two-minute scenes.

  6. Hmm. An important part of the story. I need to check there are reactions to all my actions. Thanks for the advice!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The fun part is that sequel scenes are a delight to write. All kinds of juicy character development!

  7. I do this some but very likely not enough. This is an excellent reminder for me.
    You always seem to come up with the things I need to emphasize.
    Good stuff.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The emphasis on sequels *does* depend on the type of story you’re writing. Action stories like Thor rightly put much greater emphasis on the scenes, over the sequels. But this doesn’t mean that one or the other can ever be safely neglected.

  8. Brilliant idea, and wonderfully put, “Readers need to see how all of your important characters are reacting.”

    And I can only add, those important reactions aren’t always only about the big action happening in the scenes around them, at least for me 😉

    Would love to see you draw up examples for us of this happening, esp from well known texts.

    Thanks again, best wishes 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally true. Sometimes the most important reactions come in response to deep inner moments – the revelations around which the entire story turns.

  9. thomas h cullen says

    In writing The Representative, there did come to be an important point of internal deliberation – how, in fact, would Mariel take it to what her father was trying to do for her?

    She’s meant to be a real human being……yes, his intention may be good, but more than likely she’d still react with apprehension.

    It was something in which up to this point I’d failed to register, taking for granted that just because Croyan was trying to help his daughter, it would mean her immediate, unquestionable compliance.

    It was fine in the end; I realised, the event had already taken place – I had the authority to just make it what it needed to be, for sake of the larger narrative.

    Acknowledging actualities, inconveniencies, are part and parcel of telling great stories… instinctively we are against including them, they’re actually rather easy to do so.

    That was high-level analysis.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always fantastic (and fun) when characters end up reacting in totally unexpected (but entirely logical) ways.

  10. Somehow I discovered your site today and now you’re one of my favorite writers! Thank you so much for sharing your tips and tricks for writers. Well done.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site.

  11. I recently watched Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I felt the same way. While there was character action and reaction during the climax, its resolution made it seem like any sorrow we may have felt was thrown back in our face. It was a clear example of Deus Ex Machina, which is one of my least favorite tropes in media.

    As for writing, I have to agree that sometimes we fail to show actions and reactions because we’re so in tune with what our character is going through at the moment. I’ve been revising my science fiction piece (which is fairly heavy on the action part), and early drafts showed one of my characters just coasting along like it was nothing. Completely unrealistic. I went in and fixed that right away.

    Also wanted to thank you for all your insight, and the helpful posts on the website! It really helps me understand the nuances of writing. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Into Darkness was a hot mess. I enjoyed it, but… it was a hot mess. :p

      • I have particular animosity toward screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who clearly have some sense of how to write a hit film but not how to write a good one. (Aside from the Star Trek films, they’re also responsible for Transformers.) This is just one of the rules and concepts of writing they don’t seem to understand. I could write an essay on just how many ridiculous things they did wrong with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I’ve found a fascinatingly bad film. It’s nearly a textbook in how not to construct a story.

        Actually, maybe I should write that essay.

        • thomas h cullen says

          Their corporate fiction…..shallow, insular, and bottom line just out to tease.

          The Representative supersedes them all.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Ah-ha. I didn’t realize they were the Transformers writers.

  12. Could you write more in-depth posts about this sometime? Like, there are the cliche reactions to stuff, and then there are the unique ways of making those cliche reactions not so cliche anymore.

  13. Great post, never really thought about it this way. As for the movie, yeah, there was a brick missing between Thor and Jane- my take on it (I’m loyal to things I consume) is that this is not a talk-out-your-feelings kind of relationship right now, it’s one of the anchors around which other relationships change, at least in this movie. The writers really set something important between Jane and Thor in that marvelous scene under the stars where he draws in her notebook. Honestly, that has to last you a while! And on a practical level, I think they decided it was either drop Jane-Thor emotion, or lose some of the other supporting actor stuff like the Doc or the intern and her new fling, which was fun stuff. And Thor-Loki, they bet the farm on that (which wasn’t a mistake).

    As for writing, I’m an epic fantasy guy and the way I look at it- action is a strength, but also a weakness since in fantasy you could have literally anything happen. There’s no chance for a reader to connect, other than to be interested as you explain the deeds and set the scene. But the reaction- that’s where you have a chance to draw the reader in, because they can say “yes, I would feel the same way”. So without reaction, even a tale set in the Alleged Real World would falter because readers wouldn’t have a chance to connect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. And I adore the Thor-Loki interaction in this movie. It’s hard to see how they could have come up with anything with Jane that would have topped that. This lapse definitely wasn’t a deal breaker for me on this movie. I still loved it on many levels. But it’s disappointing just because it could have been corrected so easily.

  14. Siegmar Sondermann says

    being a beginner, I stick to Swain´s Scene Sequel Cycle which automatically forces me to write a sequel after each scene.
    Right now I am trying to shorten the cycles to see what it looks like.
    Concerning the individual length of a scene or a sequel I use Swain´s emontional clock a.k.a. my gut feeling.
    Letting my characters share their reactions is an idea I will try out for sure.

  15. Great info. Thanks for sharing your time and knowledge!

  16. Such a good point!!! One I’m going to have to keep in mind as I’m revising and writing. Sometimes you know something is lacking but can’t put your finger on it … and this is one of those things! Thanks, Katie 🙂

    • Most human beings are unconsciously good storytellers. But it’s those niggling something’s-wrong-but-I-don’t-know-what-it-is moments that make the conscious understanding so important. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  17. thomas h cullen says

    A storyteller’s skill is in their precisely being able to make the natural unexpected… condition the reader/viewer to not expect what in fact they ought to have at least guessed.

    • Precisely. We have to get readers so deeply emotionally involved that they won’t even think twice about our subtle misdirections.

      • thomas h cullen says

        It’s such, the language of The Representative, that once you’ve finished reading it’s entire narrative you retrospectively recognise it’s warning signs at the beginning.

        It’s a very thoughtfully crafted text……despite being barely five thousands words (albeit spread across 1,000 pages), it took me the best part of two years to create.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          That’s the beauty of a great narrative. Readers don’t recognize the clues *as* they’re reading, but when they think back, they realize the clues were there all along.

          • thomas h cullen says

            I really have taken the piss, with The Representative:

            Even a year on from having finished it, I still laugh to myself thinking of certain lines in it.

  18. Good observation about Thor 2. I felt it was messy overall, but my main problem was the lack of interaction/teamwork between Thor and Loki. When there was some it was great, but there could have been more (it was promised in the trailers after all). I think Loki should have either teamed up with him sooner, or should have “died” during the climax. If he “died” closer to the end, it would feel more important and if done right, there could still be enough time to fool audiences without feeling obnoxious or cheating when he’s alive at the last minute.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It was one of those sequel movies that had a ton of ground to cover and not enough time to do it in. For the restrictions the filmmakers were working with, I do feel they did a pretty good job of crossing their Ts and dotting their Is, overall.

  19. Oh, I love this post! Great advice and it is JUST was I a meant to do in my next scene 😀 Hope all the pieces fall nicely into place xxx


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Have fun! Reaction scenes always have the potential to be delightfully juicy.

  20. I have to agree! The other thing is the lack of reaction from Jane when Thor’s mom dies PROTECTING HER. She seems totally unfazed throughout the entire film. I don’t know about other people, but that would seriously traumatize me. Reactions are very important, as a writer and actor, I’ve learned to appreciate them immensely. 🙂

  21. Great article, and great advice. I will definitely keep in mind that my characters need to react and talk to each other, rather than my narrative just bulldozing over those important scenes!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Have fun. The reaction scenes are often the juiciest and most discover-laden of the whole story.

  22. I have to say now that I am loving reading this blog in general – so much food for thought, thank you!

    As for character reactions, my main two characters do a lot of reacting together. I’d never thought of it in terms of action and reaction before, but analysing now, I have always preferred reaction scenes when watching and reading, and also prefer writing them too. I don’t seem to have extended that to some of my lesser but still important characters though, so will be keeping this post in mind while I continue with my edit/re-write.

    I also definitely need to watch Thor: The Dark World as this is the fourth mention/reference to it this week from totally different people. I need to take the universe’s hint!


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