character development header

Why You Should Spend More Time on Character Development Than Action

character developmentAuthors sometimes feel pressured to dive right into the action of their stories—at the expense of important character development. Because the last thing we want to do is write a boring story, we sometimes overreact by piling on explosions, fight sequences, and high-speed car chases to the point we’re unable to spend important time developing our characters.

Character development is especially important in the first half of the story, since readers need to understand and sympathize with the characters before they’re hit with the major plot revelations at the Midpoint and the Climax.

Summer blockbusters are often particularly guilty of neglecting character development, but in Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, we have an enduring exception.

>>Click here to read a structural breakdown of Jurassic Park in the Story Structure Database.

Can Your Characters Arc Be a Subplot

Jurassic Park (1993), Universal Pictures.

A viewing of this movie provides important insight into its success. No one would claim this film is a leisurely character study, but it rises far above the monster movie genre through an expert use of pacing and loving attention to character, principally in its first half. It may surprise some viewers to realize the action in this movie doesn’t heat up until almost precisely an hour into the film. Up to that point, we have no scream-worthy moments, no adrenaline, and no extended action scenes.

Jeff Goldblum Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park (1993), Universal Pictures.

Spielberg used the entire first half of the movie to build suspense and encourage viewer loyalty to the characters. By the time the storm hits and the dinosaurs attack, we sincerely care about the half dozen main characters and our nerves have been effectively strained to the breaking point through the magnificent use of foreshadowing.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

Jurassic Park (1993), Universal Pictures.

Spielberg understood what all authors must—that if you can hook viewers through your characters, you can take your time building your story to an artful Climax.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you prefer stories to open with character development or action? Tell me in the comments!

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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.

Comments

  1. Develop the character just enough in the beginning to make the reader want to care about what happens to that character when the action starts.

  2. I agree with chitrader. I need to know who the character is so I know why I should care. I guess the best thing is to introduce characteristics with action, but I think the definition of action is fairly vague at times.

  3. Character of course, but I also like to feel that the story is moving.

  4. I think character, but it really depends on things

  5. That kind of reassures me. Thanks K.M. Great stuff as usual.

  6. I think to be competitive in YA, you need to figure out how to do both at the same time. Maybe not start out with action, per se, but definitely conflict.

    If you can show who your characters really are early on in the book through judicious use of action, you should be golden. Of course, that’s always easier said than done…

    😉

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I greatly believe in character building. You must be care to not give enough or go over the top. When you build the character while adding suspense to the story your readings will be following. Great stuff.

    Please stop by my blog I have a surprise for you.

  9. I tend to enjoy an active beginning, but with enough character building so that I actually care what happens to the characters. I’m currently in the process of outlining/plotting my next novella and this is exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks!

  10. Characters, characters, characters–with one caveat. The reader has to care about them NOW, not be subjected to pages of back story about how they got to where they are when the real story starts. Something has to happen, but we need to be in the character’s head, not watching the explosions. That’s why I stopped watching the new Hawaii 5-0 after the first episode. All sorts of stuff was happening to characters I knew nothing about. Car chases, gunfights, and explosions when you don’t recognize the good guys from the bad guys? Not what I’m looking for.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  11. @Chitrader: I agree. If an author hasn’t given me a character to care about, the action, no matter how thrilling, ends up being ho-hum.

    @Charity: Yes, the term “action” is definitely vague. Too often, we grab onto it as meaning race-’em-chase-’em (or dinosaurs attacking), when really all it necessarily implies is movement and tension.

    @Cathryn: Movement is important in an opening scene, but movement doesn’t have to be high-octane action. Even just having a character crossing the street to reach a destination can be enough to give the story the necessary momentum in the beginning.

    @Galadriel: Every story has its own needs. “Rules” are always generalizations.

    @Ben: A lot of authors get hung up on the fear that because their stories don’t open with the White House blowing up or something, readers won’t find it interesting. But when we start analyzing what draws *us* into the beginning of other authors’ stories, we usually discover we don’t require anything nearly so startling.

    @Tere: Conflict, and its cousin tension, is absolutely the key. That’s another thing Jurassic Park nailed. The sense of tension is overwhelmingly foreboding, even in the calmest of scenes.

    @Orlando: On my way!

    @Eldra: Generally speaking, if we can find a colorful characteristic moment in which to introduce the character, we can kill both the action and the character birds with one stone.

    @Terry: Actually, now that I think about it, that’s the reason I’m often turned off by most cop dramas. Too much drama, not enough cop.

  12. Anonymous says

    If the characters and their relationships with each other are no good then the whole thing will stink

  13. Absolutely. Inter-personal interactions are at the heart of fiction. Without them, it rarely works.

  14. I have so much trouble finding the right place to start the story (I tend to start way too late) that my only really focus is getting the right place.

    Action is also a very misleading word, especially with using Jurassic Park as an example. Action can mean an action scene or starting with the story.

    BTW, You do know Jurassic Park was a novel first? It was written by Michael Critchon. It’s very different in terms of characterization from the movie.

  15. Come to think of it, one of my favorite TV shows “The Sarah Jane Adventures” is really good because of the relationship between the main character and her son. Sure they have aliens attempting to invade the world on a regular basis, but it’s the bond between Sarah and Luke that really makes the show so great.

  16. @Linda: Haven’t read the book, but, as I was writing this post, I was wondering how much it might have been changed for the big screen.

    @Galadriel: Great example. Action is a framework and a catalyst; relationships are the core.

  17. I prefer to have character in action right from the start, but not the main outer plot, rather a situation that shows the main inner character’s conflict throughout the book. This way, you get a lot of characterization based on how the character reacts. At least that’s how I tried to write it in my book!

  18. That’s the way to to do it. Introduce the character in a (preferably conflict-ridden) moment that illustrates his personality and guiding values. The trick is to make it all as fascinating as possible.

  19. False dichotomy. It’s too easy to focus on craft at the expense of heart.

  20. I loved Jurassic Park in year 8, when it came out – and I still love it now! 🙂

  21. I believe the characters need to be real enough that I care about what they experience. If it’s all drama, excitement, and no character development, what’s the point?

  22. @Suze: It truly is. Character and action should work hand in hand – not be mutually exclusive.

    @Trisha: Same here! It’s a classic.

    @Carolyn: My thoughts exactly. I adore action movies – but if the character isn’t there, I couldn’t care less about the fireworks.

  23. You’re so right. I must care about who is being shot at or chased or placed in jeopardy before I am tugged to the next page and the page after that. I go back to novels where I like the characters, laugh at their remembered jokes, and smile at their friendships. Roland

  24. Great post! Watched Jurassic Park like a dozen times and never realized about this, which is actually true. Great hint to have in mind, thanks!

  25. @Roland: I don’t know that I’ve ever reread a book for it’s action scenes (and this from a woman who *loves* action scenes). But I’ve definitely reread favorites because I couldn’t get enough of the characters.

    @Frederick: It didn’t dawn on me either until I watched it again a few weeks ago. Crazy what you miss sometimes!

  26. I think it’s always that much stronger of a piece when the story opens with defining the characters and their place in the world. The story is just a segment of time in the characters’ lives, starting with a bang may be possible but it’s not as convincing in my opinion.

  27. Good way to put it. Opening with a bang is great, but if it doesn’t accomplish the all-important task of hooking readers with character, it becomes too much of a gimmick.

  28. This is always such a tricky thing. It’s been drilled into our heads that we need an inciting incident within the first ten pages at least, and pacing is such an important balance to strike. But looking back at all the books I’ve loved, character is KEY. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s the most important to me.

  29. We need a *hook* within the first ten pages, but the true inciting event shouldn’t happen until 20-25% into the book.

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    katieonfiction.blogspot.com

  31. My pleasure! Looking forward to tweeting with you. I’ll check out the link right away.

  32. The first half of jurrasic is so boring no one can remember anything heard,seen,or explained. I feel the the only thing that keeps you watching is that it’s Steven Spielberg. He may have edited it to set up the “The Chase”,but I feel the only reason anyone stayed for the second half of the movie was thier familiarity with Spielberg, not some great plotting.

  33. Obviously, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. 🙂 Jurassic Park is one of my favorite Spielberg movies. It’s a masterpiece of plotting.

  34. I think Michael Crichton deserves some credit for the pacing of the movie, since it’s very much based on his novel. And “Time” is a rather ambiguous term. Action scenes take more time to write per word than any other parts, usually because they get rewritten dozens of times. But they’re read in a flash and usually are over in a page, maybe two.

    It depends on the story, but I still like to open in action, or at least in tension, something in process (or likely to happen or hinted at) related to the main story thread and the theme. If it reveals character, that’s also good. Readers may accept a leisurely opening (especially if they know you), but agents? Never.

    In a pinch, flashing forward to an action sequence may work. But that’s a topic all on its own.

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