The essay is from a 1971 symposium on women in science fiction. The 3 actions are defined in relation to the plot, not the character's psychology.
- Purposeful Actions are what we'd call "character agency" today. It is the character's actions that directly or indirectly effect the plot.
- Habitual Actions show the character's normal state or routine.
- Gratuitous Actions are gratuitous only to the plot. They show the character is more than just what is required by the story. This is not about the character "acting crazy on a whim" – it's actually the opposite. This is about the character's normal life which exists outside the story.
The quote comes after Delany explains that his wife Marilyn, who edited fiction, had a chronic complaint about the women characters. She said they were restricted to 2 types, which he calls Vicious Evil Bitches and Simps (who are useless and need to be rescued – also hilariously, Evil Bitches who are transformed into Simps upon meeting the hero). He admits he'd only managed to break the stereotypes in his first novel, not avoid them, so together they came up with the 3 actions as a template for "better, more varied, more believable women characters".
Here's the full excerpt on the 3 necessary actions
I have added paragraph breaks, bold emphasis, and added clarifying text in square brackets:
Action is the clearest (and most commercial) way to
present character. A good character of either sex must be shown
performing purposeful actions (that further the plot), habitual
actions (that particularly define her or him), and gratuitous
actions (actions that imply a life beyond the limit of the fiction).
Simply because the way most books are plotted, the male characters
regularly get to indulge in all three types of actions, however, if
[the female character is an] evil bitch, [her actions] are all
purpose but no habit or gratuitous; if [the female character is a] simp she is all gratuitous but no purpose or habit.
So the first task, after finding a plot that just does not require
women in either of these ugly, banal, and boringly cliché grooves, is
to make sure you portray your women characters clearly performing all
three types of actions. (And, re: the purposeful actions, performing
Women have interesting economics if you bother to notice, Philip K Dick
His following point (it's so good I think it deserves to be included) is that every character in realistic fiction must have "economic anchors" that are clearly shown or heavily implied. He uses an example of 2 housewives, and differentiates them only through their relationship to money – one is a kept woman with a regular spending allowance, the other manages expenses and pays bills through a joint bank account. Their husbands are close in economic tier but Delany suggests the women would be completely different types (immediately recognizable by the reader) based on their approach to money.
He takes a potshot at masculinity tropes saying James Bond and all westerns become fantasies the instant characters are no longer tied to economic reality. This was 1971. In the essay he details how his wife was treated at her publishing job – it's off-topic but strangely compelling. He show-not-tells how an average female character has a fascinatingly complex story behind her economics, complete with petty villains and strategic trade-offs. Every. Woman.
Part of the essay is a rant against male sci-fi authors for petty sexist attacks in women's lib run amok plots, specifically a Philip K Dick pro-life story about frivolous women having abortions until the "fetus" is old enough to learn algebra. A heroic man saves all the babies from tyrannical straw-gina, with algebra.
I have to admit, the algebra-abortion story sounds idiotic compared to the real life intrigue at his wife's job – I actually wanted to know how that turned out.
Like Bechdel, but for writers
He then defines a kind of proto- Bechdel test where he says:
Women characters must have central-to-the-plot, strong, developing,
positive relations with other women characters. The commercial/art novel would be impossible without such relationships between men…"
The source is a re-print of the essay from 1991. It can be found (in part) here: