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IWW Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: Character in action (take 2)

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.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: May 4, 2003

This is a slightly reworked version of an exercise that we ran in May 2001.

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 are also parto of his character) 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 story will proceed - character drives action. (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.

While the examples above deal with high drama or high action, this is just as true in less dramatic situations: a child deciding to do homework or play with friends, a man finding a wallet full of money and deciding whether to keep it or return it. Even in such more mundane situations, character will drive action (what the protagonist chooses to do) and action in turn defines character (those choices will have consequences).

The exercise:

In 400 words or less, put a character in a difficult situation. The character must react, reach a decision, and take action. That action, in turn, will have consequences. 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.

Exercise clarification
Posted on: May 5, 2003

Some clarifications on the current exercise (I'll have to do a better job of the exercise description next time.)

First: The character must face a clear decision - that is, be presented with at least two different possible actions. A couple of the submissions really did not show much of an alternative - I didn't see a point where the character could really have changed subsequent events. (Inaction can be a choice - but only if there was an action that the character could realistically have taken, but didn't. That action must be clearly present for there to be a decision point.)

Second, the decision must be rooted in who the character is: how the character faces the dilemma, and what choice is made, should tell us something about the character we didn't know before, or reinforce a trait already presented previously. (As a mind exercise: what kind of character would have made a different decision than in your submission?)

Finally, the decision must have consequences that will drive the story onward. What happens after the girl steals the lipstick? What happens after the journalist kills the terrorist? (Having the main character be dead at this point doesn't really leave the story anywhere to go...) Don't write a full story (well, don't post a full story); post a segment of a story (at the beginning or middle). (Someone quipped that a story is "one damn thing after another." The exercise asks you to present one damn thing, show how the character reacts to that, leading on to the next damn thing.)

Remember: except when otherwise noted, we are not looking for completed stories with closure; in this case, on the contrary, we are looking for actions that drive the story onward, towards other situations, other choices.

The basis of the exercise is that any story, real or imagined, will be a sequence of actions, consequences, and further actions, all based on and at the same time influencing the character in question.

Since it's early in the week, I will (as an exception) allow the people who have submitted already to resubmit. If you choose to do so, label your post as "Resub:" instead of "Sub:". I also suggest that you use the same basic situation, but have the character's action lead to a further situation that will need to be dealt with.

Also, to the critics, remember to look at what we learn about the characters. Also, does the outcome seem to fit the initial difficulty, and the decision that was made?

Please remember: a response saying "this was lovely", without any specific information about what worked or what did not, is not a critique. If that's really all you have to say on a given submission, then send it privately; only post a critique to the list if it really offers specific information or opinions that will be of use to the author. (For example, I saw a response that referred to finding the best sentences. This does not make a critique; telling us which sentences are best, and why, would. This does not have to mean pages and pages, but it does mean going beyond the initial reaction to looking at what we liked (or didn't), then trying to say way.


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: May 11, 2003

An interesting week, as always. (Don't you get tired of me saying this in every wrap-up? But it's true - every week, people face the challenges of the exercise and come up with interesting submissions and critiques.)

The Character in Action exercise is not an easy one - it deals with the complex interaction of character and story. Too much emphasis on the story, and the characterization suffers; too much emphasis on character and the story drags . Ideally, the two are in balance, each doing its share to drive the other forward. Good stories lie in the interaction between character and plot. (This is true in any story: fiction or non, action or literary.)

Obviously, some submissions managed this balance better than others. A common tendency is to focus too much on events (this happens, then this happens); a common mistake in writing as well is to have events happen because that's what the plot calls for - whether it makes sense for the characters to act that way.

This exercise also tries to emphasize that a critical part of the interaction between character and plot is choice: someone has to face a choice, have to make a decision - then deal with those decisions. In some of the submissions this week, the choices were not clear (in some cases, the character was trapped and had no choices.) As well, some of the submissions focused on choices made in the past - without a present choice for the character. This tends to diffuse the action, since the focus then lies in a different time.

As the most successful submissions showed, a story moves along the best when the character faces a clear choice (clear to the reader, even if not always to the character); that choice, then, leads to consequences, which then have to be dealt with. (But of course, the point of the exercises is not to write a successful submission, but to explore one aspect of writing and try to learn from it; sometimes we learn the most from the submissions that didn't fully succeed!)

Good work, everyone. Now, on to the next exercise!


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