I was told that once during a theatre audition. I wasn’t actually auditioning for a part at the time. I’d gone along to support a friend and played the ‘other’ character for him. He was there, giving it his all, working the audition room. He knew his character inside out because he had prepared – for days. In those few minutes, he was that person. I stood like a lamppost and read the lines straight off the page. The fact was I’d never got inside the head of the character because I hadn’t needed to. When my friend lunged at me in a fit of rage (in role!), I didn’t know whether I needed to cower or slam my hands on my hips and square up to him. So I did nothing. The director (who is responsible for the title), needless to say, was not going to offer me a role any time soon.
As authors, we’re not just scriptwriters, we’re directors and actors too. Dialogue alone is not enough to give us glimpses into our characters’ psyche – their actions, reactions and interactions are just as essential. And for those to be believable, we have to be in our characters’ heads. As both a writer and a reader, you might not like how a character acts, you might say to yourself that you would have reacted differently, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is that the characters’ actions are believable and pertinent to them – actions that have been included to further character or plot development. In addition to this, your characters’ actions are essential in setting the mood and tone of a scene.
I’m going to use a scene from Beguiling The Enemy, which got me into the final of New Voices last year, to show how actions can change a reader’s perception of a character. I’ve purposely chosen a section with almost no dialogue.
For those who don’t know, Caitlin is an agent for the Vampire Control Unit. She’s been the first to track down and capture the agency’s most wanted vampire, Kane Malloy. Unfortunately she used underhand measures so is being forced to let him go. Unbeknownst to her team, Caitlin’s on a personal mission and needs information from Kane about her parents’ murder. Kane equally wants something from her. Before his release, Kane has demanded to see Caitlin or he’ll prosecute for illegal arrest. Caitlin has just arrived outside the interrogation room…
She took a steadying breath, her pulse racing, grabbed the handle, but let go.
You can do this, she insisted, her hands clenched by her sides. She closed her eyes for a moment then opened them with renewed determination. She reached for the handle again and pushed the door open.
Kane Malloy sat back on the metal chair as relaxed as he would be knocking back shots in a club, legs casually apart beneath the table, his jeans cuffing his chunky lace- up boots. He didn’t flinch as she entered, his elbows remaining lax on the armrests, his position evocatively emphasising his taut biceps and revealing glimpses of his honed chest through the fabric of his dark grey T-shirt.
Caitlin instinctively lowered her gaze, her stomach tightening as she recalled that hard, powerful body pressed against hers.
But it was too late to turn back now.
She closed the door, the walls of the twenty-by-twenty foot room closing in, the throbbing silence adding to the tension as he unashamedly assessed every inch of her. She cursed silently, berating herself as much as him for the flutter in her chest.
The intimidation was clever, dangerously low key.
The games had already begun.
Clutching the release papers tight to her chest, she’d never had so much difficulty putting one foot in front of the other.
Grateful to reach the table quickly, she placed the papers on her corner, the pen on top.
‘You need to gain more confidence in those sexy hips,’ he said, that low rasp making every hair rise on the back of her neck. ‘Learn to make the most of them.’
Sitting in the bolted-down chair opposite his, she interlaced her hands on the table. She used every reserve to meet his gaze, keeping her expression impassive despite her heart pounding.
Here are Caitlin and Kane in the same scene, but with their actions and reactions altered:
Caitlin grabbed the handle, but let go. She fluffed up her hair, readjusted her top to reveal a little more cleavage, and ran her tongue across her teeth to make sure there was no excess lipstick there.
She reached for the handle again and pushed the door open.
Kane Malloy was pacing the room, clenching and unclenching his hands at his sides. He flinched as she entered, and swiftly resumed his seat at the table. He crossed his legs, his jeans cuffing his chunky lace- up boots. His folded arms evocatively emphasised his taut biceps and revealing glimpses of his honed chest through the fabric of his dark grey T-shirt.
Caitlin didn’t take her gaze off him once, her stomach tightening as she recalled that hard, powerful body pressed against hers.
She closed the door, stood with the papers by her side, her hand on her hip as he assessed every inch of her. She smirked and subtly licked her lips.
The games had already begun.
She sauntered toward him, adding a little more sway to her hips. She stopped at the far side from him and threw the papers onto the table.
‘You need to gain more confidence in those sexy hips,’ he said, uncertainty lacing his sarcasm. ‘Learn to make the most of them.’
Caitlin took a few more steps toward him and perched on the edge of the table. She crossed her legs as she checked out her reflection in the two-way mirror before meeting his gaze, effortlessly keeping her expression impassive.
Okay, so I was hardly subtle in the changes. It’s still a perfectly valid scene nevertheless, and one I could have used. I think I’ve killed a big part of the tension though, let alone my heroine’s internal conflict. Kane’s not quite the sexy predator anymore either. Above all, neither the heroine nor the hero are being true to the characteristics I gave them in chapter one. It might be great that Caitlin has decided to march in there exuding confidence and sexual prowess, but really? Caitlin is faced with the most dangerous vampire of her career. One she has managed to severely upset by using underhand means to bring him in. She knows he’s getting out. She knows he’s coming for her. But she needs him on side to find whatever killed her parents. On top of all that, she’s breaking every rule, not least her own, by being attracted to him. I think with all that in mind, Caitlin’s responses in the first scene are a lot more realistic. I also think it creates a much stronger sexual tension that drives the story forward. But then again, I wrote it this way so I’m biased.
I’ll leave you with some tips that I use to keep me on track:
- Know your characters and use actions appropriately to help define them.
- Use body language to support and enhance the mood and tone of the scene.
- Character actions and reactions don’t need to be big to add drama. Arguments, screams and crying all have their place but smiles, glances and shifting body position are equally valid.
- Actions, however small, should be interactive and reactive as much as the spoken word.
- Romance is a genre that thrives on interactions, especially between the hero and heroine (heroine/heroine or hero/hero depending what you write). It’s those subtleties that can make or break the plausibility of a relationship. When it comes to intimate scenes, it is essential to get it right.
- Be consistent. Your reader will create expectations for your character from the clues you give. Yes, it’s great to surprise but not at the expense of suspending disbelief.
- Give your hero and heroine time to get to know each other, to work each other out for themselves and show this happening so we readers can enjoy the journey.
- Last week, Tina advised eavesdropping as a great way to develop dialogue skills. Watching people is just as integral to developing as a writer. Look for the big actions as well as the subtleties in people around you. Work out what’s going on by observing, especially when you can’t hear what’s being said. Just try not to get yourself arrested. And if you do, you’ve never heard of The Hot Pink Typewriter. ;-)