Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

Three powerful ways to use action to create memorable characters

Posted: September 28, 2013, 12:22AM
What did it say about the little green eyeball monster that he rebuilt a door for his friend?



True story. No, I’m serious, this really happened.

Four teenage boys go to a crowded movie. The house lights dim. The movie begins and Roger, the dude farthest from the aisle, feels a call of nature. He stands  and edges down the row past his friends’ knees, to the accompaniment of goosing, butt slapping, wedgies, pinching and other indignities too numerous to mention.

When he returns, he figures to spare himself the abuse by facing his friends as he makes his way back to his seat. Halfway there, one of them whispers, “Hey, Rog, your fly’s unzipped.” Roger looks down—yup, wide open. The other boys begin to razz him, but Roger turns his back to them and hurriedly zips up. Or tries to. The zipper moves only a little way, then gets stuck. He yanks harder. Nothing.

The row in front of the boys is occupied by a big, husky guy with his arm around his girlfriend. She is seated directly in front of where Roger is standing. The girlfriend has long hair. Long, thick hair. Long, thick, big hair.

When Roger yanks on his zipper, the blonde girlfriend’s head snaps back. He pulls again; her head jerks again. He wrenches as hard as he can; she begins to squeal. Now, no one in the theatre is watching the movie. Soon, the house lights come on and the usher appears. Since Roger’s crotch is now welded to the head of a girl he has never met, the two are escorted out with the girl bent at the waist shuffling backward in front of Roger as her boyfriend threatens all manner of future mayhem.

While all this was going on, what did the other three boys do? For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter what they actually did do. If you were writing this as a fictional scene, what would you have them do? Would it matter, would Loyal Reader make any judgments about the characters of those boys based on what they did as their friend was hauled away, attached at the groin to a stranger?


Who you are determines what you do and when you turn that wrong side out, it becomes what you do ILLUSTRATES who you are. Screenwriters apply that principle in Save The Cat moments. David Hewson, who wrote a book by the same name, defined the term in the forward.

“Because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story, screenwriters developed what I call the Save the Cat scene. It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

Hewson used as an example the classic thriller Sea of Love. In the opening scene, Al Pacino is a cop running a sting operation to capture parole violators with the promise of a locker-room visit with New York Yankee players. But when he sees one of the violators enter with an excited little boy wearing a Yankees cap, Pacino flashes his badge at the man, who nods in understanding and disappears.

“Well, I don’t know about you,” Hewson wrote, “but I like Al. I’ll go anywhere he takes me now and I’ll be rooting for him to win. All based on a two-second interaction between Al and a Dad with his baseball-fan kid.”

The principle also applies in the reverse. The first paragraph of my novel Home Grown is a Drown the Cat scene that features one of the main characters and his Rottweiler guarding a marijuana patch.

Bubba Jamison reached down and scratched Daisy under the chin, just above the scar where he’d slit her throat when she was a puppy. Most dogs didn’t survive, maybe one out of a whole litter. But those that did became the perfect weapon—with slit larynxes, they couldn’t bark. Bubba didn’t want anybody to hear his guard dogs coming.

For my money, action is the most powerful tool writers have to create unforgettable characters. Consider how a single act In J.R.R. Tolkein's Fellowship of the Ring illuminated the character of a little guy with furry feet.

Frodo Baggins stepped forward and spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard above the shouting. “I will take the ring,” he said, “... though I do not know the way.”

Now that was a conversation stopper.

Or how about when Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc. put together all the pieces of Boo's door so Sully could see the little girl again?

You can use every action, even small, inconsequential ones, to define and shape your character. Does your hero methodically put on a sock and a shoe and a sock and a shoe instead of sock, sock, shoe, shoe? Does that mean he’s quirky or full bore OCD? Loyal Reader absorbs those moments almost unconsciously, shifts and adjusts his perceptions of a character because of them. Our job as writers is to orchestrate specific actions so they flow naturally and organically from the story, giving Loyal Reader a constant stream of subtle clues that define and shape our character in his mind.

How do you do that? Here are three suggestions:

1. Know your character. Crawl into her skin and walk around and you’ll discover things. This woman would never cheat on her husband. This dude has a chip on his shoulder the size of Cleveland. This little boy would do anything just to be noticed.

2. Develop a plan for revealing the significant actions as you progress through the novel. Orchestrate circumstances that call for the kind of action from your character that will reveal his character.

3. And with each succeeding circumstance, raise the stakes. Again from The Lord of The Rings: In the safety of the Shire, Sam willingly accompanies his master to “see the elves.”

Raise the stakes. What Will Sam do when the trip becomes a dangerous quest?


Raise the stakes: Is Sam willing to fight a giant spider to protect Frodo?

Raise the stakes. Will he remain steadfast to Frodo even if it means dying at his side? All of those actions defined Sam Gamgee as no dialogue or description ever could have done.

So now we have come full circle, back to Roger of the stuck zipper. How did the actions of his three friends illuminate their characters? Well, the first friend bailed as soon as the lights came up. Friend #2 almost asphyxiated from laughter, as did most of the other people in the theatre. But Friend #3 went along with Roger, appeased The Boyfriend and got Roger out of the building with all his body parts in tact. A young man of sterling character, that. I should know. I married him.

Write on!



Caleb January 14, 2015, 7:58PM

This post was amazing! One of your best!

And I didn't see that last paragraph coming!   Reply

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

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