Most Common Writing Mistakes: How to Spot and Fix Non-Reactive and Over-Reactive Characters

Half of what your character does in your story is going to be reaction. Fiction is all about pushing and pulling. Your antagonist pushes your protagonist, and your protag moves away, considers the situation for a moment, then pushes right back. That’s reaction. That’s the essence of fiction. It’s what makes the dominoes fall. But reaction can actually be difficult to portray without falling into one of two pitfalls: non-reaction or over-reaction. Today, we’re gonna take a peek at the two sides to this problem, how to recognize them, and how to fix them.

The Non-Reactive Character

Ultimately, this problem (much like the neglect of setting in White Wall Syndrome) is unintentional on the author’s part. We understand our characters’ motivations and see their actions so perfectly we sometimes forget to share important clues with our readers. The result is a character who seems completely unfazed by anything and everything that’s hurled at him. Such a character is going to end up seeming a) not all there, b) emotionally vapid, or c) superhuman. Unless one of these is your goal, you may want to rethink writing a scene like the following:

“Now, listen here.” The cruel assassin Mr. Semyonovitch leered into Jack’s face. “I don’t want to you to just die. I want to watch you suffer!” He cackled his malevolence.

“You forget I know karate,” Jack said.

“Karate. Pfft. I have a gun!” Mr. Semyonovitch drew a Thompson submachine gun from within the voluminous folds of his red cape.

Jack wondered if Emma had escaped Semonyonovitch’s evil pet monkey Moolah.

The Over-Reactive Character

The above paragraph makes Jack seem about as relatable and real as a hunk of rock. But in remedying this, we might easily overreact and end up with a diva-like eruption of melodrama. If I had to pick, I would always choose an over-reactive character instead of a non-reactive one, simply because at least we’re getting some action this way. But the problem here is your character may end up seeming like a) a fool, b) a narcissist, or c) a big, fat, whiny baby. Not what you had in mind? Then make sure you avoid exchanges such as this one:

“Now, listen here.” The cruel assassin Mr. Semyonovitch leered into Jack’s face. “I don’t want to you to just die. I want to watch you suffer!” He cackled his malevolence.

How could this be happening to him? He didn’t deserve this! He was just an average, nice-guy Joe Schmoe minding his own business. How had Emma tricked him into this? This was all her fault. But that was okay. He’d smoosh this hook-nosed, wart-faced blowhard into guacamole, then see what he could do about saving the day. “You forget I know karate,” he said.

“Karate. Pfft. I have a gun!” Mr. Semyonovitch drew a Thompson submachine gun from within the voluminous folds of his red cape.

That was when Jack started sweating. He hated machine guns. Oh, he was dead. So, so dead. He wondered if Emma had escaped Semonyonovitch’s evil pet monkey Moolah. If so, now would be a good time for her to start heading back. If he wasn’t dead when she got here, he was going to kill her.

The Balanced Reactive Character

Since our intent is to portray Jack as a balanced, believable guy—with a modicum of bravery, but also the same fears any of us would face in such a situation—we don’t want him coming off as either a hunk of stone or a volcano of hyperactive emotion. With those goals in mind, we’re going to rewrite our scene one more time in search of a balance between no reactions and way too many.

“Now, listen here.” The cruel assassin Mr. Semyonovitch leered into Jack’s face. “I don’t want to you to just die. I want to watch you suffer!” He cackled his malevolence.

How could this be happening to him? He tried to slow his breathing. He was just an average, nice-guy Joe Schmoe minding his own business. How had Emma gotten him into this? He had to think. Surely, there was a way out of this mess. “You forget I know karate,” he said. He didn’t really, but what did he have to lose at this point?

“Karate. Pfft. I have a gun!” Mr. Semyonovitch drew a Thompson submachine gun from within the voluminous folds of his red cape.

That was when Jack started sweating. He was so dead. Had Emma escaped Semonyonovitch’s evil pet monkey Moolah? If he wasn’t dead when she got here, he
was going to kill her.

And there you have it: the Jack we’ve been trying to discover in this story from the very beginning! Readers must paint their pictures of our characters with only the colors we give them. Make sure you’re supplying them with just the right shades.

Tell me your opinion: Does your character err more toward non-reaction or over-reaction?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Another excellent post. My characters tend to over-react to situations. Looks like I’ll need to do some editing and issue some fictional Xanax!

  2. Yep, don’t want those characters suffering on the edge of hysteria for the whole novel, do we? 😉

  3. I always appreciate seeing examples contrasting balanced and unbalanced characters like this. Even if you know (or think you know) what you’re supposed to be doing, sometimes you get so close to the text you don’t notice your mistake until an exaggerated example makes you realise “hey, I think I actually wrote something along those lines…”

    One trick I’ve found handy for getting characters to react is to make sure they are not alone in reaction scenes (unless the plot demands it, naturally). Having another character, even an incidental background player, to bounce their reaction off strengthens it and provides an opportunity to actually react without having to tease a reaction that’s strong without being melodramatic out of the narrative alone. Sometimes I might want them to be alone but write the scene first with somebody suitable to react to, then use the result of that as the basis for writing their real reaction.

  4. Writing is hard. There are so many things to remember, think about, and consider. Maybe I should have been a bomb squad technician instead. Not so much stress. 😉

  5. @John: Totally agree. Sidekick characters are around for a good reason. Every hero needs a foil to help him verbalize certain reactions.

    @Lorna: Or a brain surgeon. Or a nuclear scientist. Or a rocket launcher.

  6. Great post. I have a couple of non reactive characters that need to react a little more.
    x

  7. I find a cattle prod to the posterior exterior works wonders!

  8. I hope I find a good balance of the two. If I were to pick though, they probably come down more on the overreactive side.

  9. I always find whittling down easier than adding on, so, from my perspective, that’s a good thing!

  10. My characters lean towards the non-reactive, but I wonder if that’s because when I write I pretend I’m scripting a movie scene. I have to go back and add stuff, because I will have inevitably forgotten to actually write down the thoughts and feelings and facial expressions I saw in my head. 😛

  11. We who live in the Age of the Movie definitely have that tendency. We see the story like a movie in our heads, and, of course, movies have no internal narrative.

  12. I love your illustration story. I hope you had fun writing it. Is there any more?

  13. Afraid not. I wrote it just for the post. But if you want to hear me narrate it with a really hokey Russian accent, you can listen to the podcast. 😉

  14. Chris Raimo says:

    My protag leans more toward the non-reaction but by device. I just don’t know if it will work. She is timid and insecure. She has grown up in the shadow of 1s, 3s, and 8s (she’s a 2/4) both in her family and society and has developed into something of a doormat in life. Her “non-reaction”, though not quite to Jack’s extreme, is part of her personality and subsequent conflict. She needs to break out of her shell. I’m playing around with it (don’t worry – in my outline!) but if her defeatist attitude doesn’t work, I might have to consider making her melodramatic by contrast (a real strong 4) or change her on my enneagram to something more assertive.

  15. The trick to making non-reactive characters work is to make certain readers understand *why* they’re not reacting. If we’re inside her head, seeing her work through the ramifications of reacting and then stuffing her emotions down deep where others can’t see them, then we’re still getting a reaction from her, even in her non-reaction.

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