Every human interaction is a balance of action and reaction; the lives of your characters are no different. But often, writers focus too much on the action part of plotting a story and not enough on the reaction. Skipping this essential step is robbing your writing of humanity, resonance, and depth.
So what can we do about it? Let’s take an up-close-and-personal look into what reactions mean in storytelling, how characters naturally go through a reactionary process, and how to convey reactions of others to character traits and actions in your stories.
Action vs. reaction: what’s the difference?
Throughout your story, your characters will be acting and reacting—both on a broad story level and at each smaller scene level.
Action means your character is instigating a moment, movement, or decision; reaction means your character is navigating the repercussions of an action outside themselves—for instance, something another character has said or done, a piece of news, or an unforeseen obstacle.
For example: If Character A tells their partner they’re accepting a job across the country, that’s an action—both at the story level (accepting a job) and the scene level (telling their partner about it). Character B then reacts: How do they absorb this new piece of information? What choices will they need to make as a result?
What character B does next will be their action, and Character A will then have to react. And so forth.
Every character’s journey is a pattern of actions and reactions. In general, action is what drives the plot, while reaction is what drives character. Many writers become too focused on powering their stories through action that they don’t give the character’s reactions room to breathe, which can make a story feel shallow and rushed.
That’s why we’re going to focus on character reaction today.
The three stages of character reactions
When people react to something, they go through three distinct stages. It’s the same when your characters react. Let’s take a close look at the mental and physical response that your characters will experience when confronted with something new.
The physiological stage of a character’s reaction happens at a neurological level—it’s entirely unconscious. These are things that happen to our bodies when we recognize something that’s either a threat or a desire.
For example, a person’s pupils enlarge when they see something they like (life hack: this is a great way to tell if someone’s crushing on you). If you see something that frightens you, you might get goosebumps, or your limbs might go stiff as you prepare to run. If you’re embarrassed, your body might produce more heat which makes you blush.
These are unconscious instinctual reactions that all human beings have, and the very first phase of the reactionary process.
The second stage is also born of instinct, but it’s unique and inherent to each character based on their upbringing, values, and worldview. This stage of character reaction will show your reader who your character is as a person.
For example, if two people are walking along a deserted street at night and they hear a noise, what’s their immediate reaction? Does one character look for a place to hide, or turn and run? Does one of them draw a weapon? Does one hide behind the other, or ignore it completely?
Not all characters will react the same way, which makes them human and unique.
You can highlight the reflexive stage in character relationships, too. If one of these people begins an argument, how does the second character react? Do they immediately agree with everything that’s said, or begin yelling, or simply leave the room? However your characters react in a given situation will illustrate something important about the character’s personality.
The rational stage is the moment your character begins reacting in a controlled, cognitive way. This might be only moments after the action, or it could be days. It might be something like deciding to apologize after an argument or going to rescue a captured friend despite the risks.
This is the instant when your protagonist makes a choice in response to something that has happened, leading them to their next action.
This stage is important because it dictates what’s going to happen as the story progresses. However, don’t make the mistake of rushing into this stage too quickly. Very often, characters (and people) are not entirely rational, especially when faced with something emotionally jarring or unexpected. It can take a little bit of time for them to process what they’re experiencing and come to a rational conclusion.
Internal vs. external character reactions
In life, people often react differently on the outside than they do on the inside. When a character reacts, it’s the same thing.
Consider how your protagonist might react when they speak to their love interest after waiting all night for a call that never came. On the inside, they might be angry, hurt, and seething with questions. On the outside, they might be cheerful and blasé: Last night? Oh, just went out with some friends, had a great time. You?
Consider the juxtaposition between your character’s internal reaction and their external reaction. What does this contrast show about these people? How will it affect the story events that happen next?
Life is full of subtext and artificial façades—embracing these will make your characters and their conflicts feel even more real to your readers.
Ways to show character reactions
Now that we understand a bit more about what happens when a character reacts and why it’s important in a story, let’s explore some ways to show characters reacting on the page.
Internality is all about what’s going on inside the character’s head. How does the opposing character action make them feel? What sort of thoughts or emotional responses do they have in response to it?
For example, maybe your protagonist is reacting to their best friend cancelling a plan they made weeks ago. Consider what your protagonist’s first thought would be, how one emotion might shift rapidly into another, whether they’re feeling betrayal, fear, confusion, or relief.
All of these reactions will show your reader something about your characters and their relationships. Plus, you can use this internality to juxtapose their externality, as we looked at above.
Physicality means the physical reaction in your characters’ bodies when they’re faced with certain situations. Industries like politics and law enforcement have entire practices based on decoding a person’s body language, and as a writer, you can use this to highlight the personalities and deeper nuances of your characters.
A physical reaction might be something like your character reacting by tightening their grip on their phone, looking away to avoid eye contact, blushing, releasing tension in their shoulders, laughing, fidgeting with a piece of jewellery, and so forth.
Think about all the ways you and those around you express emotions, consciously or unconsciously, through the body.
It can be an interesting practice to try observing people in a public environment and make note of their body language. What can you tell about a conversation without being able to hear the words? Often, physicality betrays what people aren’t willing or able to say out loud.
Another way to show reactions in your writing is through dialogue. When characters are reacting to each other, dialogue is either honest and instinctive, or calculated and cognitive.
In other words, the character either says what they mean in a moment of searing honesty, or they say not quite what they mean in a moment of trying to achieve a goal.
For example, blurting out “I love you” and the most inopportune moment is an honest reaction that has no premeditation; it’s not an action orchestrated to achieve something. Moments like this are rare in life as well as in story, because so often we fight to come up with the right thing to say. But when your character does deliver a line of truly honest dialogue, it can be a turning point in the story.
More often, dialogue is a character’s thoughtful reaction to the events happening around them. They say not what they really mean, but what they think will bring them closer to their objective.
The way your character uses dialogue to navigate a challenging situation and get what they want can be a revealing way to offer insight into important characters.
Master character reactions in your writing
Too often, the way characters react is overlooked in favor of a breakneck plot. Don’t forget—plot is driven by action, reaction, action, reaction, and so forth until the big finish. By emphasizing the importance of a character’s emotional responses, you’ll be able to create your best story that resonate with your readers.