Tag Archives: Characterization

Uncross Those Arms: How Body Language Plays a role in Life & Fiction

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Human beings are a language-centered species, yet we communicate far more often with our bodies. Each day, we send signals to others via postures, facial expressions, and other seemingly benign gestures. In fact, that body language is often a more accurate indicator of our true feelings than our verbal cues.

Learning to decode the body language of our family members, friends, significant others, and co-workers can often shed great insight into “what is really going on in there.”

A few weeks ago I downloaded a free app on my iPhone called “Body Language Cues.” It came from Matt Sencenbaugh Education. The more I read on the topic, the more fascinated I became. I immediately set to work trying to “analyze” my fellow people. It’s not always easy, after all, nothing is that cut and dry. But I do believe that all day long, we send unconscious clues to others and vice-versa.

This got me thinking. What a great tool for character development! Understanding body language not only plays a major role in our real lives, but for the average fiction writer out there…this could be a wonderful way to enhance our characters’ struggles, conflicts, and emotions.

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*Here’s a general breakdown:

Common Cues

• Balled fists, elbows pressed firmly at the sides and spastic movements indicate fear.
• An arched, inclined, downward facing posture indicates sadness.
• Relaxed, loose muscles and the absence of a rigid form indicate a general sense of happiness.
• Hands that are jammed into pockets often suggest a lack of confidence or feelings of uneasiness.
• Arms that stay resting at the sides with open palms, and feet planted parallel on the floor can be a sign of humility.
• An obvious “up and down motion” of the Adam’s apple suggests anxiety.
• When someone’s upper body is directed towards you, it means he is in agreement with you or he likes you. If someone casts her upper body away from you, it means she disagrees or finds you repelling.
• A deadpanned, impassive facial expression may be interpreted as “Go away!”
• Arms crossed tightly at the chest is a self-soothing gesture. It may be a form of relieving anxiety.
• A shrug shows indifference, surrender, or a relinquishment of accountability
• Tilting the head backwards, or “lifting the chin and looking down the nose” indicates authority, dominance and haughtiness.

Sexual Signals

• Dilated pupils almost always suggest a keen interest in another person.
• If a woman studies her hands during conversation, it often indicates she is attracted to the person she’s speaking with. It may also convey nervousness.
• Women who intermittently cross and uncross their legs may be showing interest in their conversation partner.
• If someone “mirrors” or mimics your actions he or she may be telling you that they find you intriguing or engaging.
• When a woman unconsciously spreads her legs during conversation, it is often a sexual come on.

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Let me out of here!

• Someone who clinks their nails against a drinking glass or rapidly shaking or bobbing his foot likely is expressing that he wishes he were someplace else. This is often a gesture that signals impatience with the situation.
• If a person’s eyes are glossy, “dull or unfocused” they are likely bored to tears
• Fast, rapid nodding of the head can imply annoyance or agitation, while easy nodding shows comprehension and interest.

Liar, Liar

• The tone of voice of a liar will often be flat, unvaried.
• Liars will try to shift the course of conversation by using ironic humor or sarcasm.
• Liars won’t always crack under pressure. If their conversation partners stopping questioning and simply stare at the supposed liars, they will become uneasy. The ones telling the truth will often get indignant.
• Liars will often cough or clear their throats throughout their bogus explanations.
• Liars’ voices will sometimes change in speed and pitch. They might start speaking at a faster or slower rate. Also, they might use some words in a “higher-pitched” tone.
• Liars might display some typical nervous gestures such as nail biting or rubbing their palms down their thighs.
• A lowered gaze might be an indicator that someone is hiding the truth

*Most information came from “Body Language Cues” Matt Sencenbaugh Education.

In conclusion, it’s incredible how often we communicate in nonverbal ways. The culprit may not even be aware of his own actions! With these ideas in mind, it can be a great additional to the characterization in your story. Characters who display subtle signs through body movement and facial expressions will come across more rounded and humanistic.

Recommended: Video from TedTalks. This is a fabulous lecture on “power” body language and how it reflects our success. If you have the time, it’s really riveting

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are 

Do you know of any other body language cues that I may have left off the list?

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Filed under Characters, Writing Process

Forever Young: How Age Influences Character Development

I turned thirty this past October, and realized, with some degree of pride, how differently I view the world now than I did ten years ago. It’s a fact of life: as we age, our view of the world shifts, broadens, and at times, flat out changes—hopefully for the better.

In life—and in writing—age does matter. Not in terms of intelligence, metabolism, or crow’s feet, but in our perceptions and natural cycles of the human lifespan.

Old woman sitting on bench
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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure how this notion applies to fiction and characterization; in fact, all it actually takes is a conscientious writer. A fifteen year-old protagonist will have different priorities than forty year-old protagonist, and vice-versa.

And it goes beyond levels of maturity. It’s about experience and life stages. What would be a realistic goal for a twenty-five year old woman? A sixty year old man? I believe the human experience is more collective than we realize, but age does play a major factor.

A character’s mindset, desires, concerns, and agendas should be “age-appropriate.”

Maybe this will help…

I came across a psychology book entitled Introduction to the Lifespan by Spencer A. Rathus. It is a Cengage Learning textbook that is used in the school where I teach.

In one section of the text, it lists the results of a survey taken that asked participants to match certain attributes or personality traits to particular age groups. The results were as follows (I have left out the percentages):

Ages 0+ innocent, unruly, adorable, naïve, endearing, cute

Ages 10+ impolite, manner less, disruptive, insolent, complex, young, aggressive

Ages 20+ in love, ambitious, sexy, young, romantic, daring, attractive

Ages 30+ competitive, hard-working, enterprising, impressive, capable, efficient, strong

Ages 40+ hard-working, slogger, organized, capable, efficient, punctual, tempered

Ages 50+ respectful, cultured, hard-working, organized, provident, methodical, rational

Ages 60+ respectful, cultured, beneficent, humane, benevolent, conciliatory, honorable

Ages 70+ nostalgic, tired, cultured, humane, peace-loving, nice, honorable

Ages 80+ isolated, nostalgic, tired, mourning, sick, unwell, solitary

Ages 90+ dying, isolated, old, alone, sick, solitary

*Source: Gruhn, D., Gilet, A-L., Studer, J., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2010, December 13). Age-Relevance of Person Characteristics: Persons’ Beliefs About Developmental Change Across the Lifespan. Developmental Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a00213151-12

Obviously there is room for argument here, but much of it makes sense. I’ve found that my characters do fit the characteristics of their age groups. It doesn’t have to be an exact science, but it may help to structure your characters’ conflicts around the stages of their lifespans.

Another interesting note: I’ve found that most major characters in literature tend to fall between the ages of ten and sixty. It’s rare to come across protagonists who are mere children (middle grade excluded) or elderly persons.

Two exceptions:

Room by Emma Donoghue. The story is told from the perspective of a five-year old boy.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. This is a two-protagonist story, where one of which is a woman in her seventies.

Both stories are magnificently portrayed.

How about you? How old are your characters? Do they fit the descriptions from up above?

How important is age in fiction? Does it aid the characterization process?

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

How the club scene gave me insight on characterization

Take a minute and think back to a book that you loved, but a read a long time ago. Got one? Good. Now what do you remember the most about the story? The plot? The conflicts? The setting? The descriptive writing? Maybe somewhat, but most likely, right about now, you’re recalling a character.

Characters make or break a story (like you’ve never heard that one before). They are the driving force. Characters are to literature as subjects are to sentences. They perform all of the action. They are the ‘who’ in the ‘who, what, where, why, and how.’ See what I did there? 🙂

That’s why it’s so important to develop rich, flawed, plausible characters. No stick figures. No stock figures. No one-dimensional perfectionist heroes. Real people. Your mother. Your boyfriend. Your neighbor. You.

I wrote an article for Suite 101 that outlined the difference between round and flat characters. See here: Round Characters vs. Flat Characters

But as I grow with my writing, I’ve come to learn that the trick for creating indelible characters lies within the fundamentals. The essentials. The stripped-down-naked emotions. The desires, the needs, the motivations, the vulnerabilities, or perhaps most importantly, the intentions. It may take a few drafts to get there, but once you do, once you see what your characters want, what they are after, the other stuff–physical traits, personality, backgrounds–cleanly fall into place.

I’ll give a real life example. This past weekend was my bachelorette party. We went down to Atlantic City, and stayed at Harrah’s. At night, the hotel pool area is given a sort of pseudo club vibe with remixed versions of various already-disposable Top 40 hits. Hardly my scene, especially since at 29, I felt like the Grandma who seemed to have forgotten how to walk in four-inch heels.

Random groping, photobombing, and dresses that fall right below the butt cheeks were the norm. I could practically smell the pheromones. Naturally I’d never been more grateful for my soon-to-be husband, or quite frankly, my age. If I’ve ever wished I was twenty-two again, I don’t after this weekend, because being twenty-two means going to the pool after dark. And going to the pool after dark means being star struck by Jersey Shore cast members.

At one point in the evening I found myself talking a twenty-three year guy who seemed flabbergasted at the thought of my getting married. “That’s such a long time,” he kept saying. “You’re twenty-three,” I responded, “for tonight, just focus on finding a dance partner.”

But then the conversation took a strange turn. Yes, I’m aware of his state of inebriation, but his whole tone changed. “It’s weird,” he said, “last night I had a dream about a brunette, and I don’t know, I was in love with her or something.” He proceeded to tell me that girls from his town didn’t take relationships seriously, and an ex in the past had hurt him, and so forth.

It dawned on me then. Maybe deep down, this hand-friendly crowd is hoping to meet someone interesting, hoping to feel a spark, a connection. Perhaps secretly, all they really want is a reason for going out, for dressing inappropriately, for drinking beyond recognition…maybe….just maybe, they are hoping to go beyond the overstated notion of ‘scoring.’ Maybe they want to be carried away by love.

Not everyone in the club of course. But some. Your character maybe. See what I did there? I’ve come full circle. If you, as a writer know that in essence, your binge drinking, weight lifting, protein gurgling, hair-gelling party guy character wants someone to connect with…it’s easier to establish his purpose. He may act one way on the outside, but you and your readers know what it is he truly longs for. And that, my fellow intrinsic writers, is what makes a well-rounded character.

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July 17, 2012 · 6:06 pm

Oh there you are…

Writers shouldn’t fall in love with characters so much that they lose sight of what they’re trying to accomplish. The idea is to write a whole story, a whole book. A writer has to be able to look at that story and see whether or not a character works, whether or not a character needs further definition.”
—Stephen Coonts

Last week I received some feedback on one of my major female characters. Apparently, compared to another female character, she didn’t ‘jump off the page,’ as they say. This surprised me greatly. I’ve spent much more time thinking about Character A than Character B. Character A arrived in my thoughts with any beckoning. Character B was not forged, but certainly planned. Yet somehow, according to my small group of readers, Character B–in the draft they were shown– leaped, tumbled, and sprang, forward while Character A mostly stayed put.

I’m aware that some characters arrive more organically. As I’ve said before, these are the guys that show up uninvited bearing no food, drink, or gift. But what about those characters who I swear I know, see clearly, hear impeccably, feel intimately…but yet, don’t get expressed properly in the prose?

So I rewrote her. I opened up a new document, titled it after her name, and wrote her whole story. Then I took the various bits and pieces of text and placed them (I hope) strategically in the all right places. When I read over the revisions, I was astonished by how weakly I’d characterized her in former drafts. She is perhaps the most important female character in the story! I’d cheated her, in a sense. But what’s strange, the way in which I finally brought her to light, is exactly the way I’d always envisioned her. Now, thank goodness, so can everyone else.

I guess sometimes we intrinsic writers can lose perspective. We are so enmeshed in our creations that we develop a sort of ‘blind spot’ towards them. I see what I see, even no one else does. Even if it’s absurdly obvious. I learned something important from this critique though. Don’t shortchange your people. They don’t deserve it.

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Filed under Characters, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Details, Writing Process

Visions

As an intrinsic writer, my ability to conjure images is plentiful. Since I was a kid, while reading books I’d envision places that I’ve never seen before. Sure, sometimes a character’s mentioning of “Grandma’s house,” would place me in my own grandmother’s home. More often though, I’d see a whole place. New houses, new schools, new neighborhoods, new towns, new cities, etc. Sometimes I’ll revisit these places that live in my mind’s eye; in other words, two totally separate novels by two totally separate authors will wind up in the same setting.

As I gradually transform from reader to a reader/writer, this notion grows stronger. Unless I have particular setting in mind (i.e. my most recent short story) my mental backdrops are glimpses of the unknown. Where are these places? Do they exist? Do I dare attempt to be new-agey, and suggest that they are abodes from a previous life?

One could argue that it’s based on a writer’s description, but that can’t be 100% percent correct. Now that I write like a fiend, I understand that regardless of how important sketching may be, there is still a story to tell. All good stories balance the touchstones–characterization, plot, themes, etc.–there is only so much room for description. The writers plant an idea, that’s all. The rest comes from the clandestine capacity for fantasy of the intrinsic reader.

These places…or people or things…creep into my mind throughout the day. It always gives me a warming feeling. If my current environment feels threatening in the least, I can escape. I’ve always been naturally drawn to books, but it wasn’t until I started writing that I’ve understood why. Words and books exert the mind. A novel has far fewer limitations than do film or television.

But we know this. The ability to create our own settings only helps to prove it.

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Filed under Characters, Description, Inspiration, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process