Lately, I’ve been looking at the way people say “no”. Not just in the sense of using the word, “no”, as in stating a personal preference, but in the sense of when it matters. This is about your main character’s boundaries.
Many people don’t know what their boundaries are until they’ve been crossed. Then, they feel angry, resentful, put out, victimized and they may act accordingly. The very fact that your character sets a boundary indicates a level of strength and self awareness. The type of no may also depend on what is being asked and who is doing the asking.
Since your character’s actions is the primary way to reveal character (who she is and how she is in the world), how your character sets boundaries reveals a great deal about that character.
For instance, say your character is a woman having dinner alone in a restaurant and she is approached by a man who wants to go home with her. If the woman feels sure of herself, she will say “no” if she is not interested in him or his offer. But there’s many ways she could say “no”:
“I can’t.” Or “I have other plans.”
“I’m waiting for someone.”
She might over-explain if she’s unsure her “no” will stick. “I’m on call at work tonight and I can’t. I just don’t have any time. ‘”
She might lie. “I have a boyfriend.” And even elaborate on that lie with, “He’s an ex-Navy seal and he’s the jealous type.”
She might try to distract him and convince him he doesn’t want her. “There are so many other beautiful women here, much more suited to you than I am. One of them would probably love to go home with you.”
She might be blunt. “No.” But if she is, does she feel bad about that? Are there other signs that she’s uncomfortable?
She might be defensive. “What do you want?”
What if she’s defensive to the point of offensiveness? “How dare you ask me that!” It says a lot.
Maybe she just pulls out a gun and tells the guy, “Get lost!”
If she is insecure, she may say yes when she really wants to say no.
Why? There’s probably a back story there, or a reason she cannot say no.
She may know the man and care about what he thinks of her, so she is afraid to say no. She may be a chronic people-pleaser and think that no means she won’t be liked.
It says something about her character and where she’s been, doesn’t it?
How people respond to “no” is also indicative of character.
For instance, if this theoretical male character is told “no,” how does he react?
Does he try again? Does he rephrase his question?
Does he try to wear her down with threats and coercion?
Does he try to bully her in a show of strength?
Does he try to convince her that he’s right? That she, as the woman should do as he wants?
Does he go into victim and talk about how lonely he is?
Does he apologize for even asking and act ashamed?
Does he look around the restaurant, pull out a gun and hold it to her head?
No matter what your characters choose, it is indicative of who they are and how they are in the world. With these two characters in the restaurant, you have characters in a setting, which is the basis of a scene. What happens next is how the scene will play out.
If you’re a writer, look at your scenes again. Observe how your characters say no, and how they react to hearing it. It says a lot about them. As a writer, you can build or increase tension between your characters by looking at the way they say no, or react to hearing no, and making their actions unique and definitive to them.