Thursday, January 23, 2014

Say This, Do That: Making Characters Deceptively Genuine

     Last fall, we visited a college so my son could interview with an admissions counselor. Our visit coincided with many freshmen moving into the dorms. Their families carried boxes, rolled carts, and heaved clothes out of cars and into their son or daughter's new home away from home. Underneath the physical labor, the emotional load taking its toll on these families was tangible.
     Body language spoke volumes. There was the dad standing aside with his arms folded over his chest, watching a son embrace his mother. Or the 18-year-old walking arm in arm with a younger sibling after yet another trip to the car. I remember my own mother mumbling a terse 'bye' and quickly sequestering herself in the car, barely able to look at me as I began Day One of college life. Her trembling chin betrayed the brusque manner of her farewell.
     What characters do with their bodies is equally as important as what they say. Think about a time when a loved one answered with an 'I love you, too' after an argument with his or her arms crossed. What does body language reveal about that person's feelings?  Were they really ready to forgive and forget?
     Or how about the boys in the front pew at church, staring ahead with their backs straight and hands in their laps, while their shoulders shake with the giggles. Isn't their body language contradicting their behavior? Yes, in a very BIG way!
     In Nancy Kress's, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (Writer's Digest Books 2005), she states the body doesn't lie, that 'bodily reactions and inner thoughts trump action and dialogue.' We say and do things all the time that contradict what our gestures and inner thoughts reveal.
     When getting to know your characters, try making an emotional map for your main character and important secondary characters. How does each one react physically when happy, sad, angry, worried, etc.? What unique phrases might they use while experiencing these emotions? Also, make note of a contradictory inner thought or gesture to support these emotions. Each set of actions, gestures, and phrases should be unique to that character. After all, on a planet of 7 billion people, no two of us are the same. 

     On a side note, I read one of my favorite quotes of the week on Brain Pickings. Thirteen of the best children's picture books were featured and Maurice Sendak's My Brother's Book,  called his posthumous 'farewell to the world', was one of them.  Discussing Sendak's influences and the themes prevalent in his work, playwright Tony Kushner, a longtime close friend of Sendak’s told NPR:
    'There's a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice's books. And I think that when people play with kids, there's a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring — because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.'


  1. Some things are so obvious, so true, so all pervasive that we end up taking them for granted. The idiom "Actions speak louder than words" is something I've been hearing since I was a kid, yet I have to remind myself to put it in everything I write every time.

    Moody Writing

  2. Body language is a key element to characterization. Excellent post!

  3. Good tips! And re that cover -- doesn't it just look delightfully Sendakian? :)

  4. @mooderino: My first inclination is to show conflict through dialogue, so I always need to go back and add the extra layers of body language and inner thoughts to make characters whole.
    @Matthew: Thank you!
    @Marcia: Yes, it does. He has the most distinctive style!

  5. Body language is really good for creating a visceral response in the reader. Of course, for the emotion and experience to hit home, they first need to fall in love with the character, enthralled by the plot, and (in many cases) mystified by the setting.

  6. Great post. It's so true, body language is a visual language that we all speak whether we want to or not. Thanks for mentioning Nancy Kress's book. Sounds like a must read!

  7. Interesting post. Now after I've finished going over my editors edits, I'm going to have to go back through my manuscript and check for everything you've just said. I'm going to check out that book, thanks for the tip.
    Also, looking forward to seeing your posts on the A to Z Challenge. I'm trying to visit all the "WR" coders before we start and get a look-see into what to expect (hopefully).



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