Characters in Action

Last week I attended a three hour workshop, Characters in Action, presented by Janice Obuchowski at the Renegade Writers’ Collective.

The theme of the workshop was the use of action to reveal character which feels to me like an accessible, tangible writing tool.  I came away from the class with something I knew I could utilize right away.

It was a cold, rainy day but the room we were in was warm and brick-walled.  Everyone was excited to be there and willing to work, discuss, and read aloud.  No doubt – we were here to learn, and I for one definitely did so.

We read short writing pieces by Ron Carlson, Justin Torres, and James Joyce and marked places where we gained insight into characters through their actions, decisions, and dialogue.  Once you start doing this you can’t stop.  Our subsequent discussions revealed that while we all read the same piece, because the story derives from the characters’ actions, it evolves in the mind of each reader differently — the essence of good fiction writing.

For the first exercise we were tasked with writing for ten minutes in response to a prompt without the use of dialogue and without narrating characters’ feelings or thoughts.  We had a simple prompt:  one person washes a car.  There were a few other limitations and options, but that was pretty much it.  I found that I could stay focused on the exercise and still be immersed in my little story.  In fact, I was so immersed that I slipped into internal dialogue at the very end – oops.  You can read my humble little exercise here.

Janice recommended practicing this type of exercise regularly and I know without hesitation that it will be useful to me to do so.

The piece we read by Joyce was from Araby, a short story.  Joyce is known for revealing setting and inanimate objects as though they were characters.  We went through the piece and marked not only where we gained insight about the characters but also where he used action to describe the setting.  Next we wrote a short exercise trying to do the same.  James Joyce I am not, but I was still fairly pleased with mine.  You can read my exercise here.  

So now I have a tangible lesson to fall back on and to call up when I need it.   When writing is good it seems to magically evoke a story rather than tell it.  Now I feel that I have some insight into how that happens.

Sometimes I find myself sitting at the keyboard saying out loud, “I don’t know, I don’t know!”  And now I know to ask myself, ‘What is she doing with her hands?  With her face?  Her boots in the snow?  What is she not doing?’

Give a reader some credit, let them figure it out.  I can do that, I tell myself.  I know I can do that.

© Margaret Grant and magoffleash, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.


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