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Writing Characters-In-Action, by Emma Darwin

I was lucky: I didn’t know I was a writer at eighteen, so instead of studying English at university as many would-be writers do, I studied Drama. The more I write, the luckier I think I was. There’s Pinter: what’s between the words spoken is as important as the words, so how do you make that happen in your reader’s head? There’s learning Shakespeare by heart and speaking it, to develop your ear for how character-in-action is embodied in the sound and rhythm of words. Voice projection is also useful: I’m not too fazed at an event when the sound system goes down or the coffee machine starts up.

Then, years later, as a beginner writer, I came across the bizarre suggestion that you should ‘cut all adverbs’. This is the tyrannical offspring off a good regime: fiction is built of character-in-action, so you need to keep looking for the perfect verb for that action, not settle for a bland one spiced up with an adverb. At which point I had… well, I was going to say a light-bulb moment, but it was more of an olive-oil-and-wick-lamp moment, which sent me back to my undergraduate copy of Aristotle’s Poetics: ‘For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.’

He’s talking about theatre and Tragedy (his writing on Comedy was lost), because they hadn’t invented the novel at that point, but it’s all storytelling, made from characters-in-action (actors = act-ors). I remembered working on Stanislavski’s idea of ‘intentions’, from An Actor Prepares, where for each speech you have to decide what the character is trying to do in speaking it. So you’re not allowed to say, ‘he’s in love with her’, ‘she’s furious with him’, ‘they’re bored’; your idea must be expressed as a verb – as what they do: ‘to seduce’, ‘to scold’, ‘to destroy’. As Aristotle says later, there’s no point in having a crystal-clear idea of your character and their thoughts and emotions, if you don’t know exactly how that makes them act. It’s all in finding the right verb, as I explored here.

Of course, we historical fiction writers have a particular relationship to this basic truth about storytelling; we write about the foreign land of the past, and it’s easy to get caught up in the ideas, the ‘qualities’, the beliefs and stuff of that fascinating foreign-ness. But it’s how our characters act in their foreign land that makes the connection with us here at home.

We wouldn’t whoop at a bear-baiting or happily die rather than sign the Thirty-nine Articles. But if I start thinking in terms of intentions such as ‘to cheer on the team’ or ‘to save my soul’ I begin to get at what those actions and actors are made of, and so I can write them. What about locking up a sister so she can’t run away with her lover? Is that ‘to protect’, ‘to control’, ‘to possess’ or ‘to prevent evil’? Now there’s a story…


Emma Darwin’s author website:

Emma Darwin’s bio page


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think the lessons that you learned from drama are things many writers learn from reading their material out loud or trying to picture it in their heads.

    June 17, 2013

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