Actions Trump Thoughts & Feelings in Unveiling Character

“Characters reveal themselves more vividly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.” —David Corbett

 

image by niki_vogt
image by niki_vogt

Note the above quote from “Characters, Scene by Scene,” by David Corbett in the January 2015 Writer’s Digest issue. Corbett explains that actions show a character has made a choice. A character’s choices reveal values and character. Corbett also says thoughts and feelings can change, where as past actions can’t.

Corbett writes, “Our inner lives matter in exact proportion to how much they motivate what we do.”

My Examples

Background: Mr. Halbreth has offered Brent Russell a job in a remote African jungle. Brent will be separated from his wife, Sylvia, for six months.

image by ikinitip
image by ikinitip

Sylvia’s Pure thoughts & feelings:

Six months without Brent? No job was worth that sacrifice. How could Brent even consider taking such a position? But he had. A knot formed in her throat. Brent was being selfish. What if she was terribly injured? Could Mr. Halbreth reach him? She swiped at tears. Right now, she could strangle Brent.

 

Sylvia is shocked, hurt, and angry, but these feelings could change. Do we really think she’ll strangle Brent?

Sylvia’s Pure Actions:

image by wikimediaImages
image by wikimediaImages

Mr. Halbreth rose as Sylvia entered his office.

He gestured toward a chair. “Please sit, Mrs. Russell.”

She sat and crossed her legs. “I hope I’m doing the right thing, Mr. Halbreth.”

“What’s on your mind?”

“What I’m about to tell you, Mr. Halbreth, my husband would never reveal to you, because he wants the job.”

“We want him.”

Sylvia licked her lips. “Brent has a heart condition.”

Mr. Halbreth’s confident smile flattened.

Sylvia hurried on. “If he has a heart attack, he needs to be near a hospital equipped to save his life.”

“On his application, Brent indicated he had only borderline high blood pressure.”

“Of course, he would.” She stood. “I must go.” She captured his gaze. “Hopefully, you have an alternate candidate.”

Sylvia’s retreating, high-heeled footsteps echoed in the silence.

No matter what her thoughts or feelings are, Sylvia has gone behind Brent’s back to sabotage the offer.

Adding thoughts and feelings, could show how she’s betraying him. Possibly cold-bloodedly. Or desperately. Her talk about doing the right thing may be to draw Mr. Halbreth’s sympathy. Or she may mean it. Her statement about hoping Mr. Halbreth has an alternate candidate may show she expects him to rescind his offer. Or she’s sorry he’ll lose his best candidate.

image by kropedd_pl
image by kropedd_pl

Sylvia’s Actions, Thoughts, and Feelings

Mr. Halbreth rose as Sylvia entered his office.

He gestured toward a chair. “Please sit, Mrs. Russell.”

She sat and crossed her legs. “I hope I’m doing the right thing, Mr. Halbreth.” Could he hear her heart thud as she did the hardest thing in her life?

“What’s on your mind?”

“What I’m about to tell you, Mr. Halbreth, my husband would never reveal to you, because he wants the job.”

“We want him.”

Sylvia licked her lips. This’s for us, Brent. “Brent has a heart condition.”

Mr. Halbreth’s confident smile flattened.

Sylvia hurried on. “If he has a heart attack, he needs to be near a hospital equipped to save his life.”

“On his application, Brent indicated he had only borderline high blood pressure.”

“Of course, he would.” Because it was true. But who knew, his pressure could rise out of control. She stood. “I must go.” She captured his gaze. “Hopefully, you have an alternate candidate.” Certainly, he’d find another qualified applicant.

Sylvia’s retreating, high-heeled footsteps echoed in the silence. She’d prepare Brent’s favorite lasagna dinner tonight.

In fiction, actions speak louder than thoughts & feelings; all are important. Click to tweet.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Actions Trump Thoughts & Feelings in Unveiling Character

  1. I like this, and suppose I have used the technique without understanding why.

     
     
    1. I think I have too, Katheryn, but now I’m going to be more intentional about what my characters would do within their values and character.

       
       
  2. Marcia

    Under Sylvia’s Pure Actions we’ve been striped of POV.

     
     
    1. Marcia, you’ve appropriately summed up what the pure actions problem is. We have no idea what’s going on inside Sylvia.

       
       
  3. Hmmm. I’m picking up on some Sylvia…? I love these examples. Thanks, Zoe! P.s. I don’t know if it’s just my iPhone or what, but there’s a photo of a big slab of lasagna in the middle of this post (image by kropedd-pl.). .. I always learn good things when I visit here. I get kind of complacent with writing sometimes and need some good reminders and examples. xo

     
     
    1. It’s helpful for me to think up the examples. Tanya, your phone is fine. I dithered between putting the lasagna closer to where Sylvia thinks about dinner or to where it ended up to pique some interest to read on. Gosh, I wish I had lasagna in the oven right now for lunch.

       
       

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