In real life, people don’t always say what they mean. It doesn’t mean they’re lying or even in denial. Sometimes characters think they’re telling the truth, or sometimes they don’t know the truth. Maybe they’re just not comfortable expressing the truth.
In a work of fiction, there are the words themselves and the truth behind the words. There is the text and the subtext. Subtext is what’s not being said. It’s the implicit, not explicit. Much of the subtext of a story is revealed through actions that characters make, whether simple gestures or big events. Actions tell the truth, even if the words themselves lie.
Look at a character’s gestures. Sometimes they’re made on purpose; sometimes they’re unconscious. Small movements can be telling of what’s really going on in the character’s head. Like if they clean their gun slowly and methodically, or if they simply close their eyes when someone is speaking to them. Sometimes gestures contradict the words. Someone on the verge of being caught doing something wrong could act nonchalant, but the nails of his fingers bite into his palm as he makes a fist behind his back.
Every week I get together with one of my critique partners at a local café for a writing day. Once, there was a couple in the booth next to us that I couldn’t help watching. The girl kept trying to snuggle up next to her boyfriend. While he let her come close, he eventually leaned away, then scooted away, and even turned his shoulders away from her and crossed his arms. His body language said it all—he did not want to be close to her.
Sometimes people speak with their hand over their mouth. It could mean they’re insecure or aren’t sure about what they’re saying. Or maybe your character walks several steps behind the rest of his group of friends. Does he want to disassociate from them, or does he feel he doesn’t deserve to be with them? So much can be said just with body language.
Characters can tell us about a situation by their pace and rhythm. Do they act quickly? With energy? That could mean they want to get something over with, or maybe they’re running from something. Do they move slowly? Hesitantly? Do they linger, savoring a moment? Their speed alone can tell us so much.
Many people have behaviors that are habits, often times bad habits. If one of your characters is always late, it could be subtext for a number of things. Maybe they’re not good at organization or planning. Maybe they don’t care about anyone else, or they’re lying about where they’ve been. Do they like making an entrance and being the center of attention? It could even mean someone is young or uneducated and doesn’t know how to read a clock. Some other habits could be having superstitions, clenching teeth while sleeping, or always standing close to an exit. Most habits have a backstory and can inform us about the character.
We can often understand what is really going on by the choices characters make. For example in the movie AVATAR, Jake’s and the Colonel’s objective seem to be the same: to find a diplomatic solution to gaining the unobtanium from the Na’vis. But when we read into the subtext as the movie progresses, and the decisions each character makes, we learn the Colonel wants to blow them away, and Jake wants the opposite—to become one of them. Think of the first time Jake becomes an Avatar and experiences being able to run again. His excitement plants those first seeds of subtext of what Jake’s true objective will be.
Whether through gestures, body language, habits, decisions, or rhythm and pace, choose your character’s actions carefully, because it’s through the subtext of those actions that the truth of your story will be revealed. And actions speak louder than words.
Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.