Characters’ Actions: The External and the Internal Life
I believe it was Eudora Welty who said that one of her biggest challenges in writing was to get a character to walk into a room. Such is the small business that looms large in the writing of any narrative. How do we make our characters’ actions convincing and properly motivated? How do we know when it’s time for them to walk into a room, or perform whatever actions they perform in the course of a story?
The famous theatre director, Constantin Stanislavski, said, “All action in theatre must have inner justification, be logical, coherent, and real.” He also said, “In every physical action, unless it is purely mechanical, there is concealed some inner action, some feelings. This is how the two levels of life in a part are created, the inner and the outer. They are intertwined. A common purpose brings them together and reinforces the unbreakable bond.” So it is with writing narratives and moving characters about on the page. Everything a character does, no matter how small the action, must come from somewhere inside that character. Characters walk into rooms for reasons both external and internal. Actions connect to the inner lives of the people performing them; otherwise, as Stanislavski says, the actions are purely mechanical. Then it seems as if the writer is controlling the action and manipulating both characters and readers, rather than the action coming organically from the sequence of events and what the characters carry inside themselves.
A case in point is the short story, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” by Irwin Shaw. The story opens with a couple, Frances and Michael, strolling down Fifth Avenue in New York on a beautiful Sunday morning. They’re in high spirits. When she catches him looking back at a pretty girl, she makes a joke of it, telling him to be careful that he doesn’t break his neck. He laughs and asks her how she knew he was looking at the girl. At this point, Shaw breaks the dialogue to give Frances a small action:
Frances cocked her head to one side and smiled at her husband under the brim of her hat. “Mike, darling,” she said.
Notice how the action of cocking her head to the side and giving her husband a knowing grin from beneath the brim of her hat precedes her next bit of dialogue and yet is organically connected to what she already knows inside herself. Her husband has a roving eye. Because the action precedes the dialogue, what she says is rich with context. When she says, “Mike, darling,” we know exactly how she says it, and we know the part of her inner life that motivated the action in the first place. The character’s inner and outer lives have a causal relationship. The physical action, to use Stanislavski’s terms, conceals an inner action. The external action is motivated by what the character carries inside and makes possible the texture of the dialogue that comes after it. The subtext of what she says works its way to the top during the course of the story. Each beat in the extended scene brings it closer and closer until the end when Frances and Michael are in a bar and she confronts him:
“You’d like to be free to—” Frances said.
“Tell the truth.” She took her hand away from under his.
Michael flicked the edge of his glass with his finger. “O.K.” he said gently. “Sometimes I feel like I would like to be free.”
The movement of her hand—the action comes from her acceptance of the truth he’s yet to admit. She can’t stand to touch him because she already knows what his answer will be. His flicking the edge of his glass—the action not only contains his uncertainty as he considers how to answer, it also contains his decision and his knowledge that the next thing he says will in a sense flick her away as well.
The point is this: The actions in a scene are not only there to make the characters and the events palpable; they’re also there as a way of illuminating more of the characters’ emotional interiors.
As it is in the theatre, movement of any sort must come from somewhere inside. We have to ask ourselves why our characters do what they do, why they do it at that particular time, and what it has to do with our deeper understanding of their inner lives.