#22 Characterization – Using Reactions To Characterize
Actions and Reactions
Reactions are one of the most visceral ways to bring characters to life because it makes them relatable. Indirect characterization is where the author leaves clues in the text on what the character is like. This week, we study how character reactions characterize. There are two main sets of reactions: Firstly, your focalized character’s responses to external stimuli and secondly, the other character’s reactions to your character.
I am going to stand on the shoulder of a giant with this article. Arlene Prunkl, a freelance editor, wrote a fantastic article about writing realistic character reactions. Prunkl states that there are four stages of a character’s reaction. I condensed this into the following three:
The Physiological Stage
The first reaction is physiological and entirely involuntary. This reaction is our fight or flight response, and so it must happen first. If someone slaps you, you probably flinched, and that is your physiological response. For example, goosebumps, blinking, eyes widening, and blushing. These are common to human beings, and so all it does is show your character to be a human, which is great, but it does not characterize.
The Reflexive Stage
The second stage is idiosyncratic to the character and therefore characterizes better than the first stage. If someone tried to slap me, I would duck out of their way. In contrast, a friend of mine who has been a fighter his whole life would block the blow, by catching the hand before it hit him. Our reactions characterize how we react under threat.
This stage is both physical and emotional. In my example above, I react physically by ducking. At the same time, I would be fearful. My friend would feel an overwhelming sense of outrage.? Write down a list of how your character would react in different situations. Then use these reactions when writing scenes. Ensure that the reactions are both a mix of physical and emotional and use this when your character encounters external stimuli.
The Rational Stage
The third stage is the rational stage, where your character’s rational brain intervenes with a filtered response. For example, if you see a person you are attracted to at a party, your pupils dilate. This is physiological. You smile at the person, and that is your reflexive reaction. Other people might blush, get shy, run away and hide. Not you. The rational response is what you do next, now that you have had time to think. In this case, you walk up to the person and introduce yourself.
Not only did you get a sample of the three stages in motion in the correct order, but you also got the highest sense of who the person is based on the reflexive and rational stages. The one a natural way you react, which is more revealing of your subconscious and the other more revealing of your conscious brain.
Actions, Dialogue and Reactions
Being the smarty pants, that you are, you noticed that the reactions are made up of actions and dialogue. Either you scream (dialogue) or you run away (action). Therefore, the reaction indirect characterization technique is a responsive form of the previous two methods, action and dialogue. You can call it a meta-technique made up of two other methods. One character acts or speaks, and another reacts with action or speech.
Be careful not to slip into the use of clich? with this technique?for example, her heart drummed against her chest when he touched her. In romance novels, this is so overused that it will undoubtedly be clich?d for you to even think of using it. Instead, spend time developing unique ways of demonstrating the same old reactions. If you are going to use a common reaction, describe it differently because it will just make your writing more unique.
Example of Reaction from Literature
In the below extract, Nick Carraway reacts to something his cousin Daisy Buchanan says:
Why they came east, I don’t know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it ? I had no sight into Daisy’s heart, but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game (p8).
Nick says I didn’t believe it, which is a reactive thought he has to a statement his cousin Daisy makes. This reaction shows he is a critic and a sceptic. He validates his initial assessment by explaining that the Buchanan’s drift in pursuit of some former lost glory.
The Big Idea: Characterizing Through Reactions
Reactions are another powerful indirect characterization technique. It can be a character reacting to external stimuli or other character’s reacting to the focalized character. There are three stages, the involuntary physiological, the physical or emotional reflexive and lastly the rational. Create a list of reactions, both actions and speech, showcasing how your character reacts to different situations to make them a dynamic and unique person in their own right. Use this list when writing the character and ask yourself how would my character react in this situation. Additionally, avoid clich?s by spending time developing fresh ways to convey the same old reactions. Do this, and you will craft compelling characters.
For similar content, scroll through my blog and podcast episodes. The posts assist authors in mastering all aspects of writing. Also, If you enjoyed this post, subscribe and share it with someone you feel could benefit from it.