Writing Character Descriptions: Action

Actions can convey so much, and nearly every character will have movement in your writing, whether it’s directly mentioned or not. In many books I’ve read over the last two years, I’ve noticed very little movement described outside the generic ran, jumped, sat,and walked. And I’ve started realising more and more just how much I like character actions being described carefully.

So I thought I’d give some of my own tips for writing character movements and action.

  1. Show character quirks.

Just like each person in the world, each character will have their own quirks. I know some people don’t have as many ticks and such as others, but even just how someone stands or walks can be a quirk.

I have several ticks, and they even vary from situation to situation. If I hug someone the same height as me or taller, I always stand on my tiptoe, even when it isn’t necessary, and I even do it when hugging some people that are shorter than me. When my anxiety starts acting up, I run my thumb against my middle finger and snap a lot, as well as shake my head and stretch my neck towards the right. As I’m thinking or  conversing, I run my hand over the tips of my buzzed hair. Turner bounces his legs slightly when he’s feeling restless and loads when he’s feeling happy or excited. He also tostles his hair every time he’s about to leave the house. And these are just a few examples of the things just the two of us do. There are endless possibilities that you could incorporate into your character descriptions.

  1. Include the small gestures.

Ticks could often be found in this category, but the category goes far beyond just quirks. Small gestures are often things that a character does in reaction to something they experienced.

An example from a short story I wrote when I was in college would be a man dropping his camera in shock, leaving it dangling from its strap that’s wrapped around his wrist, and then removing it and rubbing some feeling back into his numb hand. Another example might be a raised eyebrow, rolled eyes, a change of stance or posture, a clenched fist, or a dropped object. Often times when a person is reacting to something, it happens in a series of small gestures. Keep this in mind when writing scenes that would be shocking or important to your characters.

  1. Restrict or modify movement when the character is injured.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when a character gets injured and it seems to have little to no effect on them. And it’s like this always happens. Even in fights and situations where the character would have loads of adrenaline pumping through their veins, not all of the pain would be blocked or ignored. I sprained my ankle over 5 weeks ago. When it first happened, I fell to the ground and couldn’t think straight. After a couple minutes, I was able to get up and walk about half a mile to a restaurant. The next day I could barely stand on it. Now I still have limited movement and can’t stand on my tiptoes or sit crisscross.

Did your character hurt their leg, ankle, or foot? They should be limping, and as the adrenaline wears off, have them limp more. Did they scrape up their elbow? Have limit their ability to lean on it and to full bend or straighten it. Did they get a concussion? Show that their balance is off. Different injuries will limit mobility in different ways do some research and find out what could happen to your character and how limited their mobility could be based on the injuries they receive.

  1. Mention how the character moves differently in different situations.

I don’t know how much I’ve really seen this in writing outside of scripts. But it’s becoming one of my favourite things.

I definitely move differently in various scenarios. When I’m at home, I either sprawl out into a sea star type position with my legs propped up on tables, or I curl up into a ball in a tiny seat or on the floor where I can lean against a chair or the wall, or I sit on the counter. When I’m at a friend’s house, I sit “properly” on a couch or in a chair, either crossing my ankles or crossing my legs. (Until I get to where I’m super comfortable there, that is.) When I’m at a party or in a large crowd, I have worse posture, I pull my arms in, and I look down more. When I’m at the movies, I stand tall while waiting in line and sit with my feet in my seat while watching the movie. And when I’m eating at a restaurant, I usually have one foot tucked up under my other thigh.

Just like my various levels and types of actions in these few situations, your characters will act differently around certain people and in certain circumstances than they would others.

  1. Remember that different cultures move and hold their bodies in different ways.

This is a big one. I didn’t truly realise how different it was from each individual culture to the other until I went to France for the first time. I was there for six weeks to study abroad, and I learned very quickly that Americans stick out horribly there. We speak loudly, move our arms around like crazy (and yes, that even includes the more reserved people), and we stand much farther apart than the French and many other cultures do. In Italy, the majority of people have large hand gestures and arm movements, but they tend to keep their elbows in stand closely together. In the the States, we shake hands, hug, or wave upon meeting someone. In France, they kiss cheeks or shake hands. In most Asian countries, they bow. Do some research to figure out how various cultures move and carry themselves, and see how much it can change your work.


Anything you think I missed or have any fun examples you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

Published by A Boggus Life

I am an eclectic reader and editor who solves Rubik's cubes, writes, draws and paints, and longs to live in England and France.

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