Weekend Workout: Character – Action Part 1 (of 6)

REMINDER: You’ve got until Monday, March 12 at MIDNIGHT PST to enter Round Three of the 50 First Lines Challenge.

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I was told in my screenwriting program at University of Washington that “characters are the sum of their actions.”

Let me explain.

Let’s say there’s an accident on the side of the highway and a man is signalling for help. A business woman who has just accepted an award for her “contributions to the community” sees the accident, but is very late for an important meeting regarding a competitive multi-million dollar bid. She can’t lose this deal. She sees there are more cars behind her. Someone will stop. She drives on.

An illegal immigrant is the next person to see the accident. If she stops, she’s at risk of being discovered by the police. But she can see that the man is hurt. She stops to help.

Now, that was an obvious way to get you to think about who these two people really are. But, don’t get too mad at the business woman, because she has the opportunity to redeem herself in her story and we like that. She may be motivated by one thing now, but she’ll be motivated by something else later.

Our actions, as humans, are complicated. They are driven by a whole schwak of emotions and experience. The business woman isn’t a horrible human being, she just lives in fear that she’ll be a failure . . . like her mother always predicted she would. And until she breaks out of that cage, she’ll probably continue to do things that eat away at her conscience.

Knowing the motivations (the hopes and fears) of our characters helps us to develop actions that are more believable. And if those actions are to change (i.e. at the end of the story business woman sacrifices a million dollar deal for someone else), we need the story to support that change in a believable way. Meaning, the character arc has to develop meaningfully and logically over the course of the story. Otherwise, the actions are empty.

Taking the time to really look at WHY your character does the things she does, instead of simply doing what you need the next action to be, will help in developing characters people care about.


Set your timer for 5 minutes.
Start at the top of the page with the following startline: 

The cage that keeps my protagonist from truly expressing herself looks like . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 7 more minutes.
Start with the following line:

The thing my protagonist regrets not doing most is . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 10 more minutes.
Start with the following line: 

The scene where the cage is lifted happens when . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

Read your exercises, make notes, highlight what makes sense.


  1. tonyollivier
    Mar 9, 2012

    Nice post. gets me thinking about my characters and what drives them ( or doesn’t )

    • I’m guilty myself of hollow actions for my character sometimes. When I sense that happening, I stop and ask myself Why would she do this? What’s the motivation behind her actions?

  2. Daisy Carter
    Mar 10, 2012

    I’ve copied and pasted your exercise into a word.doc to use tonight when I’m writing! Arc is so important, but I’ve never seen a more concise way to figure out motivations and why/how they change! Wow, what a BRILLIANT post!

    I’ve tagged you to participate in the Lucky Se7en writing challenge. You can check it out HERE!

    • Hi Daisy and thanks! I’m glad you thought so. I think there’s so much more to say about it, but I try to keep my posts short and helpful.

      There are many more exercises you could use to get to the meat of motivation, the important thing is to write about it and timed exercises are the best way to work it out.

  3. char
    Mar 10, 2012

    Thanks for the post! I’ve copied this out to do later, since I still haven’t started round 3 challenge–agh! I loved what you said about characters being the sum of their actions. Love your blog!

    • Looking forward to Round Three entries – especially since I’ve never tried it this way. It will be interesting to see how different the stories are that arise from one introductory paragraph.

  4. msdiamondhill
    Mar 11, 2012

    excellent post! I’m not taking any challenges right now. But I’m keeping record of them because I can practice them any time for better writing.

  5. spbowers
    Mar 11, 2012

    “characters are the sum of their actions.”

    Love that!


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