In his "Characters" essay, Samuel R. Delany purports there are three types of actions to characters: "purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous." He also defends that, in a novel, if "a character [is] involved in a number of all three types of actions, the character will probably seem more real." However, save for a very shallow example, he doesn't state what is meant by each type of action nor how they can be combined to give a character more depth.

I was wondering what is meant by each type of action as well as what examples would motivate having all three for a character. (A Google search did not get me very far other than references to the quote itself...)

  • Jim walked to the park to meet Jill. (Purposeful) ... nervously looking over his shoulders with every other step. The park always made him nervous, as though dozens of eyes were always on him. (Purposeful, plus habitual). As he sat on the bench a dog came running up to him; he didn't own a dog but they always made him smile. He gave the dog a pet and felt his nerves gently relax. (Gratuitous). From behind him a female voice made him jump; "Jim?!".
    – J...
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 20:51

3 Answers 3


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 them successfully!)

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: https://books.google.com/books?id=5G1XAgAAQBAJ

  • 18
    I wish I could upvote this more than once. Thank you for not simply defining the words. Explaining what it means in context, and looking up the original, is exactly the sort of depth an answer should have.
    – Cyn
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 21:01
  • 1
    @Cyn You can upvote more than once, by awarding a bounty. (Once you have sufficient karma.)
    – Davislor
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 6:19
  • Curious. I thought the purpose of a bounty was to encourage people to give new answers, not to reward existing answers. But I'm new enough that I don't know all the nuances.
    – Cyn
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 6:41
  • 6
    I feel like reading this just leveled up my character writing.
    – Andrey
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 11:08
  • 1
    Great post. Delany is the best writer-on-writing I know for upper-level advanced insights the average person would never think of. Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 15:17

Purposeful actions are those performed with conscious thought and effort, and in the context of fiction, normally influence the plot. For example, if, in response to the King saying 'Holy crap, someone kidnapped my daughter', a strapping young farm boy says 'I'll rescue her' and proceeds to perform said task, that is an action performed with purpose, that is, it's purposeful.

Habitual action is a regularly performed action that often serves some purpose, but doesn't necessarily, and is usually there for flavour rather than moving the plot along in the context of fiction. An example would be going to work regularly (on the more purposeful side) or biting one's nails when nervous (on the more gratuitous side). Habitual actions can be either purposeful or gratuitous in nature; the recurring theme for them is that they're regularly repeated.

Finally, gratuitous action is spontaneous action that has no rhyme or reason to it. While sometimes this can lead to a major plot-turning event (like King Joffrey Baratheon's knee-jerk decision to go off-script and execute Ned Stark when everyone wanted him to be merely exiled in A Song of Ice and Fire), for the most part a plot will feel 'cheap' if it is resolved or moved forward with such actions. Instead, like habitual actions, they're largely there for flavour. Perhaps it's a bored office worker randomly deciding to graffiti a nearby desk when nobody's looking; it doesn't progress the plot, but shows he likes to rebel in really harmless ways, which demonstrates both impotence and a yearning for more with very little proper action.

I hope that this helps you.


The other answers explain the theory well. Let's try an example.

Marla McGivers is the antiheroine of the well-known Star Trek episode "Space Seed" who displays all three actions.

  • Her purposeful action is to commit treason, betraying Starfleet and supporting Khan's attempt to hijack the Enterprise. She later reconsiders, but too late to save her career or life as she has known it.

  • Her habitual action is that she is ship's historian. That's literally her job, why she is on the ship in the first place, and not, for example, serving drinks in San Francisco or minding cargo manifests on Mars.

  • Her gratuitous action is that she is an artist who paints to indulge her fetish for stereotypical "macho men".

McGivers is actually a good example of how her non-purposeful actions relate to, but do not drive or define, the plot. Her habitual position as historian makes her someone to consult when dealing with Khan, who has just been awakened from hundreds of years of cryo-sleep. Her gratuitous action is recognized by Khan, who realizes that he can turn McGivers to his side by directly appealing to her desire. The plot could have moved forward without this (after all, there are plenty of non-sexual reasons a person might commit treason), but it portrays the characters as real people with real lives and not plot robots.

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