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How you character reacts to what happens is a great opportunity to show, not tell

January 31, 2013

One advantage to a pulled hamstring is it can take attention away from your butt-ugly shorts.

Once, back when I played volleyball a lot, I pulled a hamstring. It wasn’t a severe pull as these things go, but it was noticeable. I laid out to dig a low shot out and my hand immediately went to the back of my thigh, just like all the real athletes do on TV when their hamstring has issues. Then, as I sat on the bench, the bottom row of bleachers pulled out in the gym, it got tighter. As it got tighter, I got more frantic.

“It’s just a pulled hamstring,” the guy next to me said. I don’t recall if he rolled his eyes, but he could have. I’d never pulled a hamstring before and the experience was annoying.

The next time my protagonist was running from someone, he also pulled a hamstring. Why not, right?

Simply put, if something is annoying or adds to the difficulty in our lives, it can add to the difficulty in our characters’ lives, too. But the telling point for the characters is rarely what happens to them, it’s how they react to it.

As a hamstring rookie, I was worried that it would continue to tighten until it snapped, loving me with two marionette appendages where I used to have legs. A more experienced (that is, older) player would know what happened and would know it know it wouldn’t be crippling. He or she would also know that perhaps a little more stretching and warming up might be appropriate. In short, they would know they might have even earned the injury by not preparing appropriately.

When you’re 25–my age at the time–if you show up late, you can skip stretching. After all, it’s never been necessary before.

I can’t speak for anyone else’s work, but I tend to sometimes minimalize the results of the bad things that happen to my characters. The hamstring pull is taken in stride (get it? Ha!). The work setback is taken more stoically than the characters should take it. Even hitting the tenth consecutive red light–and eighteenth in the last twenty–doesn’t matter enough to be mentioned.

Because of that, I lose valuable insight to the character. Maybe he’s resigned to his fate as being the king of all red lights. Maybe he shakes his head because if they can put a freaking man on the moon, they ought to be able to time the lights so you hit more green than red on the major north-sound road in a city large enough to host NFL football games.

I know when *you* are driving up the road. Oh, yes. I know.

Or maybe, he flies into a rage about the stupid freaking red lights because there’s something bothering him and he can’t bring himself to deal with it.

Either way, it might be worthwhile to review the things that happen to your characters and make sure their reactions are telling readers what you want them to know.

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