Why Actions Speak Louder than Words

Sat Feb 20 2016

We've all heard the cliché. The thing is, it's a cliché because it's true. Actions really do speak louder than words. But did you ever stop to think about why?

It's because actions are the embodiment of our choices. We act the way we do because of the choices we've made. Our actions reflect our efforts to attain whatever goals or desires we've fixed our minds on.

Look at the guy in this picture. He has clearly made some bold, definitive choices in how he presents himself. Why? Beats me. But the fact of his choices is plain to see. As you look at him, don't you find yourself evaluating what kind of person he is? I do. It's human nature.

I have no idea why that guy dresses and makes himself up in that manner. But kudos him. I doubt I would be brave enough to present myself in even remotely so bold a fashion in public. Whoever this guy is, he clearly knows himself. He is clearly quite certain about who he is and how he wants to be seen.

Nobody ends up looking like that by accident, right? There is a clear and directed sense of intentionality in his presentation. Everything from the gloves to the silver hair-band to the eye liner practically shouts "This is who I am and I like it and I don't need anybody else's approval."

Brave. Confident. Self-aware and self-assured. Those are the personality traits I read in that picture.

If it's True in Life, it's True in Writing

Just like that guy, every choice your characters make allows readers to infer things about those characters. It's a "show, don't tell" thing. That guy doesn't have to tell me he's brave, confident, and self-assured, because he shows it to me in his personal styling choices.

Thus, as a writer, it's up to you to ensure that the choices your characters make accurately reflect who you want readers to believe those characters are. There are a couple of really easy ways to screw this right up.

"Why'd They do That?"

The first way is to show your characters doing things for no reason we can figure.

Well, there's always a reason. The problem comes when a character's reason for action is your reason rather than theirs.

Let's take an example, as one might find in a garden-variety fantasy novel:

Sonja's feet ached against the packed dirt of the forest path. How far back had she passed that wereling nest? One mile? Two? Not far enough for comfort, anyway. Certainly not with the afternoon light fading and a good hour's march yet before reaching Mole's Inn.

Her stomach rumbled--half in hunger, half in disgust--at the thought of the warm bowl of Mole's "whatever in't rott'n yet" stew.

She pressed on another quarter hour, then stopped to work a pebble from her shoe. And to rest a moment, she told herself. Just to catch her breath. A moment passed, but she did not like being still on the path. That nest had been empty. Abandoned, she hoped, but maybe not. She should keep moving.

She turned to the right and struck off the path, into the forest, weaving left and right around the trees. It was hard to keep a straight course, but she knew to read the moss to find her bearings.

Not five minutes later, the forest broke open into a small clearing, at the center of which stood a single small hut. A line of thin smoke rose in the still air from the hut's chimney.

Sonja approached the hut cautiously, taking care not to make a sound. A voice from inside near startled her out of her skin. "Come in, dearie, and close the door. There's werelings about, y'know."

The problem with this passage is this, and I'll bet you saw it: Why did she turn off the path?

Here objective had been clearly articulated: reach Mole's Inn before nightfall. We know all she has to do to get there is keep following the path. We know she's worried about the possibility of werelings in the vicinity. So what the heck is she doing randomly leaving the path like that?

As readers, we can't see any logical reason for it. We can't see how that action is consistent with any of her goals. As readers, we want to yell at her, "What are you doing, you moron? Get back on the path!"

Once she reaches the clearing, we can understand what's going on: she left the path because the author needs her to be at this hut for some reason.

That's fine. An author is welcome to need her to end up at that hut. But that authorial need is not sufficient reason to send her there. Although she may be right where the author wants her, as readers we can't shake the feeling that she shouldn't be. That if Sonja were a real character with real, believable motivations, she wouldn't be.

Here, the author's goal has trumped the character's goals, causing the character to behave in a way that's does not feel believable.

Fixing It

As an author, it's totally fine to need Sonja to end up at that hut for reasons having to do with the plot you're trying to construct. The trick is to arrange the situation such that her motivations coincide with your goals.

How might the author change the situation to achieve this? Part of the problem in the original is that there's really nothing stopping her from going directly to Mole's Inn. So when she doesn't, it feels wrong. Ergo, put something in her way:

She pressed on another quarter hour, then stopped to work a pebble from her shoe. In the silence where her footfalls had been, she heard a noise. A low rumbling sound. A growl. She listened, turning her head slowly to isolate the sound.

Ahead. Definitely coming from ahead. And she knew that sound. Werelings.

She couldn't see them. No doubt they were hiding around the trail's next bend. There was no sound behind her, but she knew better. They were back there, waiting silently. Waiting for their kin up ahead to bolt out of the trees, forcing her to retreat along the path into the jaws of their trap.

She fingered the knife at her waist. It's sharp, silvered blade could kill a wereling in a single thrust--and had done so many times. Still, only a fool rushed into a fight without knowing the odds.

She finished re-lacing her shoe. There was nothing for it but to go into the trees, quiet as church mice. Find somewhere to hide. She turned to the right and struck off the path.

Problem solved. By changing the situation, the author can change Sonja's immediate goals. Sure, she probably still needs to get to Mole's Inn eventually, but now we've given her the slightly more urgent goal of not getting eaten by the werelings.

By giving her a reason to go off the path, we can align her character-motivated actions with our plot-oriented goals. That is, now we can get her to the hut without making her seem like an idiot.

"Why Didn't They Just …"

The second way to screw up a character's actions is the opposite of the first: to fail to let the character take an obvious action that would seem to advance her goals.

We've all seen this in countless badly made TV shows and movies, where the good guys fail to finish off the bad guys when they have the chance, or vice-versa.

As before, there's a reason this happens: the character's obvious strategy would mess up what the author has in mind for later. The good guy can't kill off the bad guy when he has the chance in chapter 1, because then you don't have a story.

True enough, but as before, an author can't let their own goals for the story trump the character behaving in believable and sensible ways. To carry on with our example:

"Come in, dearie, and close the door. There's werelings about, y'know."

Sonja entered. An old woman, hunch-backed, waved her inside. A cloud of loose, white hair drifted in wisps around her head. "Set yer load down. I've near got supper to table."

"Are you sure?" Sonja asked. "I don't mean to intrude."

The old woman nodded. "When one has fare, two can share."

"Alright," Sonja said. "Thank you." She slung the pack off her back and set it against the wall.

Two short wooden stools stood near the old woman's small table. Sonja took one, and presently the woman set bowl and spoon before her.

No sooner had Sonja reached for the spoon when her hostess leapt at her. The visage of an old woman dropped away, revealing the hair and snout, the glistening fangs, of a wereling.

Sonja screamed as the stool toppled. She crashed the floor, and her breath left her. Gaping for air, she beat at the creature uselessly with the spoon while it bore down on her.

"Don't fight, dearie," the wereling said, its voice now low and gravelly. "The change doesn't hurt. Much." Without breath, she could not bear the creature's weight. It was so much heavier than its size suggested. The strength drained out of her arms. Inch by inch, the beast forced its mouth toward her neck.

At last, she gulped air as the wereling's fangs pierced her skin

If you think back to the earlier scene, I'll bet you'll spot the problem: why is she trying to drive the wereling off with a spoon when we know she has a knife at her waist? Ok, sure, she can't get her breath, and yes, that's a hindrance, but is all the more reason to use her knife!

If she'd just draw the blade and stab it, surely it would get off of her long enough for her to regroup and defend herself properly. That is, if the silvered blade didn't kill it outright. And anyway, if she has the strength to hold it off for several seconds before it bites her--as the scene implies she does--then surely she has the strength to stab it at least once.

She does fight, but she fights stupidly. With a spoon. Yet we know she's not stupid, right? Because she was canny enough earlier not to fall for the werelings' trap on the trail. Why doesn't she draw her knife? No reason given. She just doesn't, leaving readers once again wanting to yell at her "grab your knife, you moron! Stab the thing!"

As before the author's goals are not aligned with Sonja's motivations. The author's plot needs have prevented Sonja from doing the obvious thing that would save her. The author clearly needs Sonja to be transformed a wereling for the rest of the plot to unfold the way they want, but that authorial need is not sufficient reason for her to fight with a spoon when we know she's smart enough to use her knife.

Again, the author's goal has trumped the character's goals, causing the character to behave in a way that does not feel believable.

Fixing It

Just as in the first example, it's totally fine for an author to need Sonja to get turned into a wereling. You just have to make it happen while also making sure your characters are being appropriately smart in the circumstances you throw at them.

To fix the above problem, what might the author do? An easy route is to let the fight play out such that the knife doesn't do her any good, due to forces outside her control: She might draw her knife, but then the wereling grabs her wrist before she can stab it. That would work, though perhaps it risks making Sonja appear too weak. Or perhaps when the stool tips over, she might land on her side with her knife hand pinned to the floor. That would work too.

Or maybe it's her fault:

Two short wooden stools stood near the old woman's small table. Sonja moved to take one, but the woman interrupted.

"No weapons at table, dearie." She gave a quick smile and turned her attention back to the pot of stew over the fire.

"Oh. I'm sorry," Sonja said. She paused a moment, watching the old woman reach for a worn wooden ladle, then unclipped the knife from her waist and set it on top of her pack before sitting.

"Thank you, dearie," the old woman said, setting bowl and spoon before her.

No sooner had Sonja reached for the spoon when her hostess leapt at her. The visage of an old woman dropped away. Sonja thought of the knife now out of arm's reach. Stupid, she berated herself, as the wereling's true features, its hair and snout, its glistening fangs, revealed themselves.

The rest of the fight can proceed as before, and readers will understand entirely why she doesn't use her knife: because the wereling duped her into a false sense of security.

Any of those options would work, but I like this one precisely because it is Sonja's fault. In the others, Sonja couldn't have done anything. She was either powerless or unlucky. There's an arbitrariness to such outcomes that always makes a story feel forced, as though I can see the author coercing the plot to their will rather than just letting things happen.

But if Sonja puts the knife down on purpose, then nothing feels forced. We see her make a choice--one motivated by manners and wanting to appear the polite guest, which itself tells us something about her personality--then we see her suffer the consequences of that choice. To me, a story always feels more organic when the outcomes of situations are down to the things the characters do than to blind chance. The cause and effect is clearer that way.

We Don't Care What You Want

Bottom line is this. Every author, in every story, has their own goals for where they want the plot to go and how they want it to unfold. As you should. It's your story.

The thing is, readers don't care about any of that. We don't care what you want. We only care what the characters want.

Which means that your job as a storyteller is to manipulate the circumstances around your characters to make the characters naturally want to do things that drive the story where you want it to go.

Never let yourself say "Ok, now I need Sonja to go off the trail so she can end up at the hut in the wood" and then write it that way.

Instead, ask yourself "Why might Sonja decide to go off the trail right here?" Figure that out, then create that situation in the story. Then she'll do exactly what you need, in a way that feels entirely believable and doesn't make your character look like an idiot.

I mean, the last thing you want is readers yelling at your characters, "Hey, you moron!"