How should one make actions speak louder than words? Like if one had a rather silent character. How would you take the reader deep into their thoughts?
I apologise in advance, because this will probably be a terribly long answer. There’s a lot that you need to understand before you can tackle the issue, and I don’t know what you already know and what you don’t, so I’m going to start from the beginning and work my way forwards.
Bear in mind, this is my perspective, not law.
My protagonist is an exceptionally quiet person, so this is something I’ve had to overcome in my own writing; I need her to be the emotional lure for the reader, but she very rarely says much more than a sentence. So, here’s how I do it.
1. Understand the difference between internal reaction and external reaction.
It’s a fairly obvious difference, but it’s often forgotten. What we feel and what we do are two completely separate things. There are people out there who just behave the way they feel without filtering themselves or understanding how the context around themselves might affect how they’re perceived. This isn’t often the case with quiet people. People who don’t speak much always have a reason for it; high levels of self-control, social anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, acute awareness of appropriate behaviour, dislike of interacting with others, etc.
This is relevant because it stands between the internal and external reactions. It’s the kind of filter installed, if you like. It provides the ‘why’ for the external behaviour, and why a person behaves in a certain way is the lure for the emotional connection with the reader.
Example: The internal reaction is disgust. Jamie is too afraid of other people’s negative reactions to express it; therefore his external reaction becomes approval.
2. Answer ‘why?’.
When people behave a certain way, we’re immediately looking for why they’ve done so. It helps us to understand the behaviour and translate it into something we can relate to. We’re creatures who constantly need to develop an awareness of others and our surroundings if we hope to survive very long.
In order to answer why, you need to establish one key thing with yourself, and yourself only; what happened to this person to cause or reinforce their quietness?
You don’t actually need to convey that that answer overtly to anyone, because if you know it, your character’s internal logic will follow along that rule throughout your story. You make them consistent. People understand consistency and their brains will automatically infer their own feelings and comprehension of certain behaviours to what they’re reading. Once you know why your character is quiet, you’ll inevitably express it along the way as a personality trait rather than having to say to your reader, “He’s quiet because his dad always disapproved of him”.
3. Understand behavioural cause and effect.
This is another one that seems simple, but in writing, it rarely is (because we’re dealing with people, here, and people are rarely simple). Behavioural cause and effect is slightly different to scientific cause and effect, and it looks like this:
What has happened -> internal emotional response -> internal intellectual response -> personality filter -> external context -> external response -> context filter -> behaviour
So, a fair few stages to look at, there. This all happens within seconds in the human mind, but you need to spread it apart and examine each piece before your character is able to respond in a way that’s true to them. If you keep this formula in mind for approaching how your character feels and behaves in situations, then you’re well on your way to having solid actions that might not be expressive just yet, but they’ll at least be consistent and represent a clear character (which is half of the battle when it comes to using actions as powerful expressions of feeling).
The type of emotional response will dictate how much influence each stage has. Angry people will probably only have minimal input from their intellectual response if they’ve shot straight up to outright fury (and the intellectual input will probably be something like, ‘Oh, shit, don’t do tha-‘). Consider how the emotion itself influences the following stages and their influence.
4. Understand what your character wouldn’t like to do.
We all have a line we seemingly won’t cross (even if, under duress, 90% of us will cross it if we have to). Decide where that line is for your character. Explore what would happen if they were forced to cross it, how their behaviour would change and how people would then perceive them. Would it lead to understanding from your reader, or shock?
5. Understand societal cause and effect.
Your character themselves isn’t the only conduit into their thoughts and behaviour. The judgement of others based on your character’s behaviour will become very important in how they respond to them and how they will counter-behave. How people respond to your character will ultimately change how your reader perceives them.
6. Decide what will make your character speak.
Go back and look at why they’re quiet. When will they speak? Why will they speak? What do they consider important enough to say? How would they say it? How careful is their word choice?
7. Teach your reader what certain physical clues mean for the character.
We are all capable of lying, but some of us are far better at it than others. What remains universally true is that our bodies change when we lie and we exhibit unconscious clues to indicate that we’re doing so. This is true of all emotion. We do things we don’t know we’re doing when we respond to things emotionally. There is a fraction of a second where our intellect hasn’t kicked in yet, and our emotion has free reign. It’s a tiny window, but it does exist.
If, when your character is sad, they tend to look at the floor, you need to show your reader what that means. Expose it earlier than a key scene in which the character needs to be sad and show them what it means by the behavioural response of the character when they’re alone.
8. Understand the difference between public and alone.
We behave differently and more freely when we’re alone. There’s nothing wrong with following your character around when they’re not in the public eye, so long as what they’re doing has meaning to the story. If your sad character has looked down whilst in conversation with someone, move them to a place where they’re alone, and show them crying. You just created a link between the two things without having to hammer it into your readers. The next time that character looks down, we know they feel like crying. Something has hurt them; what happened right before they looked down has hurt them. We understand that, and our comprehension of the character as a whole will tell us why they’re hurt and we will emotionally grasp that this person is in pain because that happened and it means this for them; all without your character ever uttering a word.
9. Draw a clear line between what is normal for this person and what isn’t.
If you’ve depicted a character as a heartless bastard throughout the first half of the novel and they suddenly decide to rescue the damsel in distress, their actions mean nothing but confusion for your reader unless you have shown why and how that change happened. If we do something that’s startlingly out of character, something has happened to us to cause change (and change is what a story is all about). We have fallen in love or we are afraid, the over-arching idea is that we have felt something in response to a situation that overwhelms us to a point where we bypass the majority of the links between internal reaction and behaviour. Our personalities become insignificant in the face of what we’re feeling.
Our actions in these moments depict who we really are, when reality smacks us right in the face and strips out our preconceptions about ourselves and society. When your character does something out of the ordinary, you’re showing your reader that something has stirred them that potently; and if you’ve written it right, they’ll know why, because it’ll have happened right before the action or you’ll have depicted their deepening feeling for the situation and their developing distraction from their own personality and typical behaviours in favour of their internal response.
10. Trust in the mystery (and your reader).
Your job as a writer isn’t to tell your reader every thought in Mary’s head. Your job is to leave enough clues for your reader to pick up on along the way, and if you’ve managed all of the above, that’s plenty for them to be working with. We think in story. Our minds constantly try to link things together in order for us to understand what happens next and what that means. A reader doesn’t need to be consciously thinking about this, they’ll do it subconsciously and their minds will conjure their own understanding of the content (and that’s the beauty of books, we can create it our way, in our minds, and be surprised by what we find there).
If you understand how your character responds to things, you understand their actions. You know what they’d do and what they wouldn’t (even if you’re probably going to make them do it anyway). That’s enough. I don’t know what my fiancée is thinking, because I’m not in her head; but by the way she behaves, I understand what she’s thinking, because her reactions are consistent. My image of her is built out of her behaviour towards me and the world, not a constant verbal expression of what she’s thinking at every moment of the day.
In short, know your characters. Make their actions consistent through that understanding. Set boundaries as to what might change them or encourage them to be inconsistent for once. Break the boundaries. Let the character change as a result and apply that change to their new behavioural formula. Address the next inconsistency with the modified behavioural formula; and voila! You’ll be showing your readers what a character is feeling, how they’re changing and what that change means for them without them ever opening their gob to tell people how it is.
I feel like I’ve rambled a lot, but I hope that helps you a little. Let me know if I wandered off the point too much and I’ll try to revise it.
Thanks for the ask!