using action to define character
In Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, characters are often delineated not through visual descriptions of their appearance, but through their actions and their relationships with other characters. As a result, they are much more than skin deep.
Take for example the scene in Chapter 3, in which Aunt Sylvie throws ice chunks at a pack of dogs that are bothering her as she walks into town:
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"We turned the corner and saw Sylvie in the road ahead of us, chucking chunks of ice at four or five dogs. She would pick up a bit of ice and toss it from hand to hand, walking backward, while the dogs followed after her and circled behind her, yapping.We saw her pelt one squat mongrel in the ribs, and all the dogs scattered. She sucked her fingers and blew into her cupped hands, and then picked up another piece of ice just as the dogs came back and began yapping and circling again. Her manner was insouciant and her aim was deft."
Sylvie's stance, her scrappiness and her state of being somewhat embattled by these dogs all coalesce to depict her vividly — far more intimately that if we learned just how her features looked or what she was wearing. We are also reminded of an earlier moment when the two girls, Ruth and Lucille, alone on the lake after an afternoon of ice skating, threw snowballs to chase away what were quite probably the same dogs.
We see Sylvie crouching and blowing. We see her deftly chucking the ice. We see what sort of thing — dogs — makes her move this way. And above all, in the echoes between this scene and the earlier one with the girls, we glimpse a deep connection that exists between Sylvie and her orphaned nieces, something that goes unparsed but nonetheless clearly reveals a great deal about how the three of them will live their lives.
Focus on the body movements of a character – or two characters together — so as to reveal their personality.
Without dwelling on physical description of the characters themselves, write a new scene where your protagonist does some activity involving physical movement in a space that is important to the coming action. The idea is to focus on the action not the actor. Your action may be a small scale motion that you zero in on, and it may seem minor in importance at first, but keep focus on the movement itself and make it lead into bigger part of the story. The dynamism will help grab your readers attention. You can have more than one character, but again, don’t worry about physical description of them or summaries of who the characters are at this point. Focus on action.
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