Questionable: Bodies in Motion After Concrete Goals

Tamsin asked:

How do you get your characters to ACT? (I’ve realised that my perennial problem is that my default is characters that don’t have any goal and don’t want anything (because it’s dangerous to want) – and it is interesting (to me ;-)) that I’m just starting to be able to write characters who have some kind of goal/desire (however limp), just as I’m managing to action that in my own life for the first time too – probably no coincidence! But any tips on how to cattle-prod my characters into further narrative-carrying goals/wants would be really helpful!

You’ve pinpointed your first problem: if characters don’t have goals, they don’t have any reason to act. So get those suckers some concrete goals. That is, they don’t want inner peace, they want the ark of the covenant. If your character’s goal is an abstract like inner peace or happiness, find something concrete that will represent that for him or her, something that she thinks will bring her inner peace or happiness if she achieves it. But it has to be concrete, something that exists as an object in the real world, so that she has to use her physical body to acquire it. It has to be something she has to move through physical space to get. Your character’s goal is so central to the entire story that if she doesn’t have one, you don’t have a story, so I’d go back and look at what made you want to write the story in the first place and see if there’s a concrete goal there that you missed.

The next step is to make sure that goal is life or death to the character. It can be a psychic death, but it has to be so great that he or she will cross boundaries to get it, it has to be essential to her well-being, to her concept of self. If she doesn’t get that goal, she’s not the person she thought she was, her identity will disintegrate, and she’ll die that psychic death (or real death, depending on her antagonist).

After that, you have to reorder the way you think about character on page, and here I sympathize, believe me. If I could, I’d do all my books in dialogue. The problem is, dialogue often lies. That’s because people lie. They don’t just lie on purpose, they also lie to themselves to make a situation less painful, they interpret the truth to mean what they want it to mean, they tell themselves that things are fine when they’re not.

But people’s bodies don’t lie. If I stand up in front of a group and tell them I’m perfectly calm while tapping my fingers on the lectern, they know I’m not perfectly calm. If somebody says, “I’m open to your suggestion,” while keeping her arms crossed over her chest, she’s not open to your suggestion. Talk is cheap, movement is truth.

This is because emotion lives in the body (and thank you, Ron Carlson, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, for that piece of knowledge). You can write that Susan was shocked, or you can write that Susan saw something, went cold, and threw up. You can write that she was scared, or you can write that the gun slipped in her hand because her palms were sweating. You can write that she was angry, or you can write that she snapped the stem off the champagne glass she was holding. Talk is not character, action is character, bodies betray character, and bodies in motion are the ultimate in characterization.

But the big reason to use bodies in motion is not just character, it’s that movement draws fire, as a friend of mine used to say. It’s movement that creates conflict, people doing things in space and time, not talking about ideas and intentions. The fact that characters want something is meaningless until they begin to move after it; until they take action, go places, struggle with other people, they’re just thinking about the future not taking part in the now. And the fact that they’re taking action means that the antagonist must now take action, move his body through space for a concrete goal, blocking your protagonist, which will force her into more action . . . Lather, rinse, repeat, which I would point out, is a physical action.

So after you figure out what your character wants, the next step is not explaining it to the reader, it’s writing your character’s body in motion going after that goal.

For practice, try writing a scene like a silent movie: no dialogue. If they can’t talk, they’ll have to do something.


The best example I have of this is the brilliant Buffy episode, “Hush.” Joss Whedon had been dismissed as just a guy who wrote great dialogue, so he wrote an entire episode that for the most part had none: Everybody in town became mute and couldn’t even scream. It was amazing and terrifying and you couldn’t look away because you didn’t know what they were going to do next.

Another great place to look at bodies in motion is graphic novels. I love Amanda Conner’s Harley Quinn:


Look how much she does here with no words at all:


Harley could have said a million words about how much seeing that dog hurt bothered her, but instead Connor shows her body reacting, first in tears and then the implosion in her eyes as she loses it, then her body launching toward her antagonist, and finally the physical exhilaration of the freed dog and her happiness. Those two pages would be just fine without any dialog at all.

Character is bodies in motion, so tell as much of your story as you can through movement in pursuit of that life-or-death goal.

15 thoughts on “Questionable: Bodies in Motion After Concrete Goals

  1. Of course, anyone that saves a dachshund is the best, but I am wondering, a beaver?
    I have never seen this character or author before, this is really cool.

    1. Oh, Harley Quinn.
      She’s part of the DC universe so she’s been around for awhile. She was the Joker’s therapist at Arkham asylum and she fell in love with him and went mad. Like every other comic book character, she has a lot of different stories by different authors, all of who see her differently, some of which I don’t like, but the Amanda Connor stuff is excellent. If you’re watching Arrow, she’s part of the Suicide Squad in one iteration, and I like that one, too, although she’s a lot rougher in that one. Her relationship with the Joker is problematic–no surprise, he’s abusive–but in a lot of the stories, she gives as good as she gets, so she’s not a victim. In the series Gotham Sirens, she teams up with Poison Ivy and Catwoman and they do things together. (Fight crime may be a stretch as a description, but there are a lot of bad guys who wish they hadn’t said, “Hi, cutie,” and attacked them.) She’s my fave comic book character of all time.

  2. Jenny, you are one of those rare awesome writers who can both walk the walk & talk the walk. Succinctly.

    The passages in here are particularly shiny gold: “This is because emotion lives in the body…it’s writing your character’s body in motion going after that goal.”

    It’s not enough you write books that make the reader me happy, but you write bits like this that make the writer me shout “Yes!” & eager to get back to work.

    Thanks muchly for these posts. Always make me glad I’m a writer:)

    1. You know, I had such good teachers when I was trying to learn this stuff (still trying to learn this stuff) that I really need to pay it forward. The “emotion lives in the body” was Ron Carlson’s mantra. He came to my MFA program for a week-long seminar and he was amazing.

  3. This sounds like my real life. I cannot come up with any concrete goals for shit to pursue and thus I do nothing 😛 So much for my theory that I’m secretly fictional.

      1. Eh, to-do listing is not so much my problem so much as figuring out big vague life goals, like “I’m sick of my career but I seriously cannot come up with anything else I can do for a 40 hour a week living” and “I really don’t want to run my own business but everything I would like to would require me to do that” and I like the org I work for but can’t find anything else here I qualify for and am not super interested/motivated in getting a job in another town and losing the things I do like… basically, existential angst and wankery.

        I wish there was a program for “I don’t know what I want, but it isn’t this.” Though I read that book and still can’t get shit to come together, so meh.

        1. Have you tried “What Color Is My Parachute?”
          I haven’t read the revised version, but thirty years ago, when I was in roughly the same place as you are, the exercises in the back of that book made everything beautifully clear. They asked you a lot of questions and then showed you how to interpret them, not by giving you answers, but by showing you how to figure it out on your own. The one I still remember was listing the ten most important things in my life, and then keeping track of how I spent my hours all week. The thing I spent the most time on wasn’t even on my first list. That was an eye opener. Another one was to write a paragraph on the ten events in my life when I’d been the most happy, the things I’d been DOING when I was happiest. And then they gave you a way to analyze those things so you can see what was underneath the happiness, the concrete aspects that you could look for in a career so you’d find a career that would lead to happiness.
          At least that was the book thirty years ago. They’ve been revising pretty regularly since then, so I have no idea what’s in there now.

  4. Oooh, more writer goodies. Now all I have to do is translate my character’s inner goals (maintaining a semblance of “normal”) into outer goals, which will probably have to be more than going from a freelance editor to a freelance magazine writer, because, face it — freelance isn’t exactly normal. 🙂

    Thank you.

    1. Well “freelance editor” isn’t a concrete goal, either, it’s a job.
      If you can make that job concrete in some way instead of just a state of being, you’ll be okay.
      It’s why I’m always amazed when somebody who has pages of a story written says, “Some day I want to be a writer.” You are a writer, you idiot, that’s why you have pages in front of you. But her idea of “writer” and mine are different. I think if you write, you’re a writer (duh). She thinks a writer is (put your concrete definition here) and she’ll know she’s a writer when (put your concrete action/achievement here). For a lot of people, their definition is “When I’m holding a published book with my name on it.” So if this was a story, that would be her concrete goal.

      What is the concrete achievement that will tell your character she’s achieved her goal? As Michael Hauge put it, what are you going to put on the movie screen so that people can see your character getting her goal?

  5. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this website. I really hope to view the same high-grade blog posts by you in the future as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own, personal blog now 😉

  6. What do people think of “basic survival” as the goal that drives much of the book for a character? Like, at the level of “food and shelter.” For some reason it works better for me in a historical than in a contemporary, probably because I know that historically a lot of people even in relatively wealthy countries actually died of starvation or exposure, but even there it can kind of bore me if it remains a main character’s only goal for too long. And in a First-World-set contemporary it always feels really implausible, especially for women with children unless there’s a reason they can’t contact government services. A vague “she was too proud for that” tends to irk me because it seems snotty toward people who do use those services to get back on their feet instead of, say, quasi-prostituting themselves to the hero.

    1. It always goes back to the protagonist and the survival of her identity. Even if her life is threatened in some way, she’ll solve the problem in a way that preserves her identity. “She was too proud for that” usually means “She can’t do that with destroying her sense of self.” Destroy somebody’s identity and they die a psychic death. Some people rise from the ashes born again, and some people just give up and are never the same, descend into depression, drink, drugs. The most devastating example of that right now is all the people who are out of work, who want to work. If they take their identities from being able to support themselves and their families, being out of work destroys them. If they don’t, they regroup and find new ways to survive.
      It always goes back the character’s sense of identity, the things that make him or her who he or she is.

  7. Talk is cheap, movement is truth. —

    Amazing blog post (I’m catching up on arghink, having had to deal with real life stuff for awhile (isn’t it a shame that taxes can’t file themselves and work deadlines continue to loom despite the fact I really, really don’t want to do whatever it is I absolutely have to do?) and the writing posts have been so insightful. Thanks for taking the time. I loved so much of this post, but this is my favorite: “Talk is not character, action is character, bodies betray character, and bodies in motion are the ultimate in characterization.” It never occurred to me before that I should be looking at a characters’ actions more than their words, but now that I think about it, it’s so true. What comes out of my mouth is, partly, what I want people to see about me…but how my body responds is something I almost always have no control over…blushing, palpitations, knots in my stomach. Such a simple observation, but so incredibly profound at the same time.


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