How to Balance High Action with Deep Characterization


Dear T. E. S….

It may be that all their chatter is plot-related fact delivery, backstory delivery, or action-steeped stuff like, “Run! … Is he gone? … We’re safe.” That doesn’t do much to deepen characterizations. Give characters something to talk about and bond/conflict over that isn’t directly related to the plot. Then, to make sure that Something doesn’t feel random and unconnected, work it into the resolution of the story. Kenneth Oppel’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book Airborn balances high action and character interaction. His characters both bond and clash over social class and gender inequality, constantly stumbling over their internalized prejudices even as they both sincerely reject those prejudices. These issues have nothing to do with the pirate raids that make up the major action, yet they create characterization opportunities and eventually factor into how the characters work together to escape the pirates. What say you, Readers? What are your favorite books that balance high action and character interaction?

The Editor


  1. I write thrillers and my CPs usually tell me to flesh out my characters too. I do it by making sure inner thoughts have their belief system and their reactions to things. I imagine a psychiatrist saying to my character, “And how does that make you feeeel?” It also helps to add interesting backstory and how it affects present judgements/decisions. Action is great, but character is all.

  2. This is a great question and response. I love to write high action novels, making sure I develop the characters is always a challenge. I usually do a rough draft that focuses on the action, then go back and ask myself what personality and emotional traits would surface in the character when faced with the dilemmas the action presents, before and after the action. It’s critical that the characters are human, that their internal thought and emotional processes are evident in their actions and dialogue. On the beats where there is less action, take the opportunity to have the characters interact on a level that will reveal more about their personalities. Thanks once again Editor for providing the answers we writers need to help polish our work!

  3. In a writing workshop I attended, the instructor gave as an exercise giving a character a fear of the very thing he/she must confront on a daily basis, such as a firefighter who’s afraid of fire. Maybe you could try this with your pirates and see where that takes you.

  4. Wow, I thought that would be a tough question to answer, but I like what you suggested, Deborah, and am going to check out Airborn so I can see how that is done skillfully. Thanks!

    I like the suggestions from the other commenters too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Characterization