Interpreting Character Actions

by | Jun 13, 2014

Last Updated:
Jun 13, 2014

Do you always act as you intend?

And an even more difficult question – do you think others interpret your actions as you hope?

That view of actions misaligned with intent fascinates me. Can our subconscious bring doubts to the fore without our realizing it, invoking actions clear enough that others can pick up on altered perspectives that we might not acknowledge? Of course!

So what does this have to do with writing?

I refuse to admit what book brought up that first, jarring illustration of a character’s actions that did not wholly match with what that character believed they were doing. I’d be too embarrassed. It was not great literature or even someone I consider a superb author. But they used a technique that is awesome for character development and building tension.

Just because a character believes that something is true or MUST be a certain way, their actions could betray an inner struggle they might be denying. Other characters might see the internal conflict, casting doubt on outcomes… or the opportunity to sway actions or views.

Of course, when writing it is far more difficult to give a nuanced description of actions not aligning with inner dialogue compared to life or a movie. But it is possible.

stages of distrust part of interpreting character actions

I find the challenge quite fun. Not to mention I enjoy the buildup of tension, of which the main character is not entirely aware even as they instigate it!

The key to make this technique work is needing a character with very strong beliefs (and possibly using multiple POVs though one could work…). Beliefs that they think are rock solid and unchangeable. Patriotism, love, and religion are good examples of ideals that spawn a strong enough stance that a character would never consider a change of heart to be possible. And as those core beliefs erode, the misalignment of reality and perception are ignored. But eventually, something must break.

Alternatively, purposeful deceit can misalign actions and beliefs. Instead of other characters perceiving a change of heart in one person, one character tries to hide subterfuge, wondering if they’ve been discovered. Though not as much fun (to me) as unknowing changes of ideals (and also a more commonly used theme), this still builds tension and draws in a reader. After all, maybe the secret being held back is due to good intentions… or a wickedly evil master plan. How can you not get caught up in the drama?!

interpreting character actions

Apparently, distrust can also lead to comical moments!

I played around with these ideas a little in my epic fantasy series, especially in regards to Niri who isn’t always in touch with her emotions. She handles the truth about the Church of Four Orders better than she handles her feelings for Ty or Khodan. She hides them from herself, but glimmers emerge in her actions and responses. And of course, Ty is hiding quite a lot about himself in the beginning! That covers both methods.

But I’m really using this technique more extensively in my new WIP, Friends of my Enemy.

Friends of my Enemy is a much darker novel. More dystopian and scifi than fantasy, it relies heavy on strong characters. The drama stems from war as much as interpersonal conflict. Testing and breaking beliefs, as well as hiding information, is as much a part of the plot as guns, planes, and bombs. Beliefs such as never falling in love with someone who isn’t your spouse or how far a character will go for patriotic duty are challenged. Its quite fun to write! And I can’t wait to share the first of the short stories with you! Soon…

So, do your intentions align with your actions… always? What about your favorite characters?


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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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