Most Common Writing Mistakes: How to Spot and Fix Non-Reactive and Over-Reactive Characters


Most Common Writing Mistakes: How to Spot and Fix Non-Reactive and Over-Reactive Characters

Half of what your character does in your story is going to be reaction. Fiction is all about pushing and pulling. Your antagonist pushes your protagonist, and your protag moves away, considers the situation for a moment, then pushes right back. That’s reaction. That’s the essence of fiction. It’s what makes the dominoes fall. But reaction can actually be difficult to portray without falling into one of two pitfalls: non-reaction or over-reaction. Today, we’re gonna take a peek at the two sides to this problem, how to recognize them, and how to fix them.

The Non-Reactive Character

Ultimately, this problem (much like the neglect of setting in White Wall Syndrome) is unintentional on the author’s part. We understand our characters’ motivations and see their actions so perfectly we sometimes forget to share important clues with our readers. The result is a character who seems completely unfazed by anything and everything that’s hurled at him. Such a character is going to end up seeming a) not all there, b) emotionally vapid, or c)superhuman. Unless one of these is your goal, you may want to rethink writing a scene like the following:

“Now, listen here.” The cruel assassin Mr. Semyonovitch leered into Jack’s face. “I don’t want to you to just die. I want to watch you suffer!” He cackled his malevolence.

“You forget I know karate,” Jack said.

“Karate. Pfft. I have a gun!” Mr. Semyonovitch drew a Thompson submachine gun from within the voluminous folds of his red cape.

Jack wondered if Emma had escaped Semonyonovitch’s evil pet monkey Moolah.

The Over-Reactive Character

The above paragraph makes Jack seem about as relatable and real as a hunk of rock. But in remedying this,

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we might easily overreact and end up with a diva-like eruption of melodrama. If I had to pick, I would always choose an over-reactive character instead of a non-reactive one, simply because at least we’re getting some action this way. But the problem here is your character may end up seeming like a)a fool, b) a narcissist, or c) a big, fat, whiny baby. Not what you had in mind? Then make sure you avoid exchanges such as this one:

“Now, listen here.” The cruel assassin Mr. Semyonovitch leered into Jack’s face. “I don’t want to you to just die. I want to watch you suffer!” He cackled his malevolence.

How could this be happening to him? He didn’t deserve this! He was just an average, nice-guy Joe Schmoe minding his own business. How had Emma tricked him into this? This was all her fault. But that was okay. He’d smoosh this hook-nosed, wart-faced blowhard into guacamole, then see what he could do about saving the day. “You forget I know karate,” he said.

“Karate. Pfft. I have a gun!” Mr. Semyonovitch drew a Thompson submachine gun from within the voluminous folds of his red cape.

That was when Jack started sweating. He hated machine guns. Oh, he was dead. So, so dead. He wondered if Emma had escaped Semonyonovitch’s evil pet monkey Moolah. If so, now would be a good time for her to start heading back. If he wasn’t dead when she got here, he was going to kill her.

The Balanced Reactive Character

Since our intent is to portray Jack as a balanced, believable guy—with a modicum of bravery, but also the same fears any of us would face in such a situation—we don’t want him coming off as either a hunk of stone or a volcano of hyperactive emotion. With those goals in mind, we’re going to rewrite our scene one more time in search of a balance between no reactions and way too many.

“Now, listen here.” The cruel assassin Mr. Semyonovitch leered into Jack’s face. “I don’t want to you to just die. I want to watch you suffer!” He cackled his malevolence.

How could this be happening to him? He tried to slow his breathing. He was just an average, nice-guy Joe Schmoe minding his own business. How had Emma gotten him into this? He had to think. Surely, there was a way out of this mess. “You forget I know karate,” he said. He didn’t really, but what did he have to lose at this point?

“Karate. Pfft. I have a gun!” Mr. Semyonovitch drew a Thompson submachine gun from within the voluminous folds of his red cape.

That was when Jack started sweating. He was so dead. Had Emma escaped Semonyonovitch’s evil pet monkey Moolah? If he wasn’t dead when she got here, he
was going to kill her.

And there you have it: the Jack we’ve been trying to discover in this story from the very beginning! Readers must paint their pictures of our characters with only the colors we give them. Make sure you’re supplying them with just the right shades.


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