Any comic book fan knows that, when you get Bruce Banner angry, his skin turns green, his body grows massive, and he becomes the rage monster we lovingly call the Hulk. This is very useful in a fight, but probably less so in a traffic jam. It’s especially useful to us, though, in that it teaches us some very interesting things about the role of reaction in fiction and narrative nonfiction.
A central part of nearly any story is understanding the experience of the characters, but it’s often understated how important their experience is to the reader’s. Specifically, it’s the way a character reacts that indicates to the reader how she’s supposed to react.
In-the-Moment Reaction vs. Delayed Reaction
When Bruce Banner gets mad, we know he’s mad, because we see it right there on the page, or on the screen, whichever the case may be. And that tells us that we, too, should be mad at whatever trial he happens to be facing. When a character is emotionally invested in the events around him, it’s a lot easier for a reader to be as well.
But suppose Bruce Banner did not turn into the Hulk. Suppose someone has driven over his toe on a motorcycle, and Bruce shows no signs whatsoever of transformation. Then, in the next scene, he tells Tony Stark how furious he was when that jerk ran over his foot. Although Bruce may insist that he’s angry, readers aren’t going to buy it, because we were there and we saw his reaction. He wasn’t angry. If he was, he would have turned into the Hulk. For him to claim anger later is, at best, a delayed reaction.
This makes Bruce’s anger feel inauthentic, and consequently, readers don’t feel angry either—just confused.
Specificity of Reaction
Reactions need to occur in the moment. And of course, very few reactions are going to be quite as physical and obvious as Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk. Most of us express our anger a little bit less aggressively, and you’ll need to take the time to determine how your specific character would react in this specific moment.
For example, the Hulk may smash. Your neighbor may yell. But maybe you become very quiet and tense. Maybe you stomp as you walk. Maybe you punch the punching bag in your office. Such particular, individualized reactions can go a long way toward not only demonstrating the emotion of a moment, but also defining your character.
The Danger of Apathy
But the reaction, whatever it happens to be, needs to be there, because it’s the reaction that gives the moment much of its significance. The lack of a reaction signifies apathy. If this moment is not significant enough to make your character angry, or sad, or overjoyed, or whatever else she might be expected to feel, then why should readers feel anything? Uninvested characters make uninvested readers.
So it’s important that your scene have its clear, specific action, because that, too, is crucial to bringing any moment to life, but you need to be sure to take the time also to convey, whether through thought or action or whatever is most appropriate at the time, that your character is emotionally invested in the world around her.
Developmental editor Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing and along the way has worked on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in middle-grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts in categories as diverse as science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and memoir, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. He is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012).