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Monday, October 7, 2013

Actions Vs. Words: the Loud and the Quiet

You might have an idea of what this post will be about based on the title. "Actions speak louder than words," right? Some people are "all talk and no action," blah blah blah--most of us have heard all those sayings before. True, all of those cliches are techniques you can incorporate in your writing, specifically in your characters. But this post is taking the whole actions vs. words in a different direction, one you probably haven't heard or thought about before. I hadn't until recently.

Last week I was watching a t.v. show where the lead female character spends most of her time yelling, complaining, and bossing others around. She's basically the only female character in the whole show. And she's loud, self-centered, and annoying. She talks a lot.

What is with this girl? I wondered. Is this how the writers view women? 

Then, I think, on a subconscious level, I remembered that saying, "actions speak louder than words." So I started watching what she did. I soon realized I had misjudged her. She's the most intelligent character on the show. She talks a lot about herself, but she's actually not self-centered; she often volunteers to help others out. She lets strangers stay at her home when they have nowhere else to go. She's decisive and independent. Without her talents and abilities, the show wouldn't even exist.

She doesn't boast about her good qualities. They're subtle. They're quiet. You'll miss them if you aren't looking for them. She's a better person than she appears to be.

Because her shortcomings are so loud, I couldn't see passed them to her strengths.

This led me to realize that we as people are vocal ("loud") about different things. I'm not vocal about things I dislike, but I know people who are. A lot of my thoughts don't leave my mouth, but there are other people who don't censor a thing that comes through their teeth. (Remember two posts ago about character voice? Part of voice is what the character does and does not talk about.) In short people are loud about some things and quiet about others. Or, they may be loud/quiet about everything overall.

Sometimes people's words are louder than their actions. They are loud in their dialogue. Sometimes their weaknesses are more noticeable because they are louder. (They might be leading with their weaknesses.) They choose (maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously) to make their shortcomings more noticeable than their strengths. Whatever they are most loud about feeds into their persona. It may be what fuels your first impression of them.

Sometimes characters' words are quiet. They don't talk much, or they talk quietly. Their words don't get a lot of attention. So, what they say may not get a lot of attention.

Actions work the same way.

Some actions are loud--they're big, noticeable, they're a magnet for attention. Harry Potter defeating Voldemort--that's a loud action. Other times they're quiet. Hermione deciding to date McLaggen to get back at Ron is a quiet action. But it's still a significant one. It shows just how much Ron hurt her.

Four Different Dialogue vs. Action Combinations for Characters

So, in short, this is what everything we've talked about looks like so far. These are the different options you can use for your character's overall persona.

Loud Dialogue
& Quiet Actions

Loud Dialogue
& Loud Actions

Quiet Dialogue
& Loud Actions

Quiet Dialogue
& Quiet Actions

So the female lead in that t.v. show I mentioned at the start fits into the top category. She has loud dialogue and quiet actions.

Now, if you want to keep this concept simple, you can stop reading here. If you want to see how it gets more complex, keep reading.

Taking it Further

Dialogue is (almost) always in the characters' control. They choose how vocal to be and what to be vocal about.

How loud or quiet an action is, isn't always in the character's control. What characters want their actions to be and what they actually are might not line up. For example, Harry didn't want any attention when he fought Death Eaters at the end of Order of the Phoenix. He wanted a quiet action. But the fact he had dueled them in the Department of Mysteries was a loud one, and everyone knew about it.

So action can be broken down further:

Quiet Action by Choice
Quiet Action Regardless of Choice
Loud Action by Choice
Loud Action Regardless of Choice

Then, we also have loud and quiet characteristics:

(Remember how that female lead I mentioned had louder weaknesses than strengths?)

Weaknesses are Louder (more noticeable) than Strengths
Strengths are Louder than Weaknesses
Strengths and Weaknesses are both Loud
Strengths and Weaknesses are both Quiet (more subdued or distant).

So, here is what the female lead was in that t.v. show:

Loud: Dialogue and Weaknesses
Quiet: Action and Strengths

You can have any kind of combination for a character, such as,

Loud: Dialogue and Actions and Strengths
Quiet: Weaknesses

Quiet: Dialogue, Actions, Strengths, and Weaknesses (So overall, this would be a "quiet" character)

Loud: Actions and Strengths
Quiet: Dialogue and Weaknesses

You can make your story and characters more interesting by varying all these things. Not all actions need to be loud. If you're writing a thriller where most actions are loud, throw in some quiet significant ones. Not all characters need to be loud either. Creed from The Office is a very quiet character, but he's one of my favorites. He wouldn't be as funny if he were loud like Michael or Dwight.

Taking it Beyond

I started exploring this concept even more and realized it gets a lot more complex.

Characters may be loud in their dialogue and/or actions in one scene of the story and quiet in another.

I started thinking about whether the narrator's presentation of an action effects how loud or quiet that action is. If the narrator spends three pages discussing Hermione's decision to date McLaggen, does it make that action louder? At least for the reader if not in that universe?

Is the main difference between heroes and villains how loud their strengths and weaknesses are? Villains have louder weaknesses while heroes have louder strengths? I think that's part of it, but that it's more complicated than that.

I also think that some writers confuse quiet dialogue and actions as weaknesses, when, sometimes they're stronger than the loud actions.

Then we also get characters who are loud about strengths/weaknesses they think they have, but actually lack. Lockhart in Harry Potter boasts all the time, but he doesn't actually have the qualities he boasts about. He might look like this:

Loud: Dialogue about False Strengths, Actions that Unintentionally Reveal Weakness
Quiet: Actions and Dialogue that Reveal His True Nature

I'm sure there are a dozen more veins to explore about the loud and the quiet. Maybe I'll delve more into them in the future.

Right now I haven't quite got it all organized in a user-friendly way, but hopefully something I said in this post was new, helpful, and made sense to you.


  1. I didn;t expect to learn about Dialogue/Actions, it's something i know should be used in irl but not something i thought about using for story characters, even though it makes a great deal of sense to.
    Thanks for writing this

    1. You're welcome, and thanks for taking the time to write a comment and let me know :)


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