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I was recently reading a story in development and found myself irritated with the main character. Why? I thought. They have a good plan, they care about their goal, and their dialogue is engaging. As I kept reading, I found myself wanting to shout, “Get on with it already!” Suddenly I recognized exactly what the problem was, and worse, I realized I do it too: the character wasn’t taking actions.

How to Make Characters Take Action

This summer I read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. In one chapter, he nailed the conundrum many people face year after year as they try to change their lives: motion versus action. Motion is all the planning, learning, and talking about what we’re going to do. Action is implementing the plan, taking steps that move you toward the goal. 

Seems obvious, right? (For characters and people.) But failing to make this simple distinction plagues many a story and life. How do we find that balance between motion and action for our characters? I think it’s worth looking at why a character (or a writer) isn’t taking action.

Weak or unclear goal

Inaction can stem from a weak or unclear goal. What does your character want? Is it compelling? A character goal doesn’t have to be larger-than-life to be a strong goal. A small goal coupled with strong motivation works just as well. 

Think about a story you read recently. What did the character want? Study the ways the author created that longing. It can be done through direct dialogue or more subtle means, but as a reader, I want to know what the character wants and why. 

Planning, thinking, and other motion

As we develop stories, our characters can spend a lot of time planning, waffling, and wringing their hands about what to do. But none of that planning is action. It can reveal character, but if it goes on too long, readers get annoyed. 

When I catch a character stuck in a motion cycle getting nowhere, it’s time to force them to act. Write the scene a few ways and see what works. Have the character take the tiniest step forward or shove the character into a situation that requires a leap.

Unmerited delay

How many of our characters delay taking action, hoping someone will swoop in and save them? Or hoping conditions will change so they don’t have to make choices?

Don’t allow delay to linger too long, unless it is for a specific purpose. Some think Hamlet’s delay in Shakespeare’s play is unmerited. I disagree. If you understand Hamlet as a play that follows a revenge plot, you know he has to wait until he can properly avenge his father with a spectacle. 

There’s a fine line between delaying action for a purpose and well, just delaying. If you aren’t sure, ask a fellow writer to read the scene or chapter and mark where they wanted to skip down to the next part. 

Writers in motion

As I sit down to write, projects pull at me. As soon as I open my laptop, fourteen tabs stare back of the last setting I researched. There’s a revision plan for the novel calling. I have a list of potential articles and blog posts for the fall. A short story percolating with a paragraph written and a few beats. So much progress!

Except it isn’t. Not yet. I’m just in motion, and alone, it isn’t enough.

Do you find yourself in motion, too, not really progressing toward your goals? What we need to do is take some action.

Like our characters, we need clear goals. Once we know where we’re headed, we need limits on the time we spend in motion, planning or researching. I love research and a good plan, but sometimes, it’s a way of escaping the real work.

Finally, we need to get going and act on our plans. Even if you only take baby steps each day, those steps add up! Don’t let motion and delay steal your dreams. Take action on your writing today.

What do you do when you find yourself or a character in unproductive motion? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

The first step to taking action is to determine a goal. What does your character want?

For today’s practice, create a goal for a character. Use your work in progress, or create a new character based on this prompt:

If they didn’t make this dinner reservation, she wasn’t going to be happy.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, share your practice in the comments, and don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Sue Weems
Sue Weems
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.
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