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Exercise: Character in action

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 13 May 2001

Exercise: Character In Action

It is said that in fiction, character drives action, and action defines character.

This is true in all fiction, be it action-driven or character-driven, but it may be easier to see in the action-driven stories. Think of a good adventure story: the characters' reactions to events both drive the subsequent events, and show us what that person is really like. Indiana Jones' refusal to accept the loss of the Ark led to everything that followed - with decisions at every step leading to more results. His refusal also defines him as a character - we learn quickly in the story that this is a character who can't bear to lose, who will do whatever it takes (within the bounds of certain principles, which his adversaries don't respect) to reach his goal.

In a totally different story, Crime and Punishment, Raskalnikov is driven to murder by events: poverty, illness, and bad news from home fuel his crime. The crime, in turn, affects him, and causes him to take more actions. At every step, he has a decision to make, and those decisions determine how the action will proceed - character drives events. (A different character would have reacted differently; his friend Razoumikhine would never have considered murder, would never have gone through with it - hence, *his* story would be an entirely different one.)

Because Raskalnikov is not a criminal at heart, guilt and worry eat at him, turn him in turns paranoid and reckless: action defines character. We not only learn who Raskalnikov is through his actions (a man detached from reality to a degree, but not entirely), but we see how the actions change him.

The exercise:

In 300 words or less, put a character in a difficult situation. The character must react, reach a decision, take action, and through this we are to learn more about what type of person we are dealing with. Remember: actions speak louder than words, so avoid exposition and explanation.

The critics should try to point out what sense they got of the character, and what in particular led to that impression.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 20 May 2001

We had a good week, especially considering that this was not an easy exercise.

I was a little surprised at how many submissions dealt with very dramatic situations: murders, accidents, and the like. I guess I should have expected that when I spoke of putting the character in a difficult situation - though as some of the other submissions showed, this can be something quite mundane, a man trying to impress a woman, a woman given the opportunity to change jobs.

Obviously, most stories will tend to have both types of situations, in different mixes based on the type of story. In fact, one could say that a story is simply a sequence of such situations and reactions. In a story, a character must always react for a reason, based on situation and character - it is a common flaw in fiction (even in many best-sellers) to have a character act for now good reason, except that the author needed to have that happen for the plot to proceed.

As with some of the other exercises, I think we've only scratched the surface of this topic; I would welcome any suggestions on variants to this exercise to allow us to explore this topic further.

Thanks to all who participated - I hope you've all found it a worthwhile activity.

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.