Over at Speculative Faith, a team blog pertaining to a Christian perspective of speculative fiction, one of our authors is discussing what a writer can learn from bad books. In Part 3 (see also Part 1 and Part 2), his latest article, he focuses first on authors filling dialogue with exposition, but then he moves on to using repetitive actions and verbal responses.
In other words, all the characters are randomly standing up or sitting down or exclaiming just like every other character.
One suggestion to fix this problem is to do a word search and catch all those repetitions. Not a bad start—sort of like first aid. But I suggest the word search might better be considered triage—a method to spot the critical problems that need major action at once.
But what action? Isn’t the problem repetition? I don’t think so. I believe the real problem is that the author doesn’t know her characters well enough.
Real people don’t all stand when they’re restless and stare out the window. Some may, but not all. So if three characters in a novel all react in this way, the “fix” is more than looking for a way to change up so they aren’t all doing the same thing.
The real need is to know which characters are type A and which are passive aggressive, which hold their feelings in their clenched fists and which lash out by kicking furniture.
In other words, an author has to individuate his characters—see each as a real person with distinct ways of looking at life and handling stress. Then taking into consideration the character’s proclivities, he needs to have him act and react accordingly.
Recently I had to do major surgery in one of my chapters. I thought one of my secondary characters needed more internal conflict, so I gave him a prideful attitude in a certain situation and had him make a serious mistake because of it. The problem was, my secondary character didn’t have a prideful attitude. That was the main character’s issue. I’d slipped into a comfortable conflict that I’d been dealing with in other scenes, but it didn’t fit this character and had to go.
Surgery is not pleasant. But band-aides only serve as cosmetic fixes. The best way of tackling repetitive character actions is to do the hard work of getting to know each character inside out. When that happens, it’s unlikely an author would make the mistake of giving a Gandolf and a Miss Marple the same kind of action or reaction.