Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How To Make Your Characters Come To Life

Making Your Characters Come To Life

Aug 7, 2012

            Have you ever seen a woman who brushes a wisp of hair away from her eyes, over and over? Every two or three seconds, her hand goes up, swats the hair off her forehead and returns to its original position.  She doesn't know she's doing it, nor, for that matter, does anyone else.  It's one of  thousands of unconscious gestures that exist in the ongoing silent dialogue of body language.  When I'm near one of these hair-compulsives, I want to reach out and stop the endless pendulum of arm to forehead and back.  Of course I refrain.  It's not my business to interfere with other people's tics.  These habits are revealers of character: of self awareness, vanity, personal boundaries.  Did President Clinton know what he was doing with his downturned lips, that indicator of defensive anger?  I don't think so. 
            Fictional characters can share these catalogues of gestures.  Lips and eyes project vivid signals of feeling.  The tilt of a head, the size of a character's pupils, the set of shoulders are all useful devices to express the state of a character's emotions.
            Developing a character's unconscious gestures is a fruitful tool in writing fiction.  Foot tapping, knee wiggling and finger movements can show
tension, anxiety or a lack of self control. 

            When I'm writing, I often practice gestures to see how they work in the context of a character.  My wife is now used to this exercise.  She might see me at my computer waving my hands, wiping my brow, raising and lowering my shoulders.
I'm working to see if these gestures fit my characters.
            This attention to the detail of unconscious gesture is one way of infusing characters with believability and vitality.
           I often catch myself repeating these gestures from one story to another.  Some of my heroes like to sit with their hands hanging loosely over their knees.  Some of my villains bite their lips or chew the insides of their cheeks.  By observing the people around me, I've acquired a list of body language indicators.  I translate them into the context in which my fictional characters operate.
           Adjectives are out of fashion.  Modern writing tends to be more spare with description than the fiction of other eras.  Economy is a great virtue in writing. I seldom describe a character in more than the most general terms.  I prefer to let the reader develop the character's appearance in his or her imagination.  I am partial to the use of gesture, conscious or otherwise.  Everyone has their tics, squinches, pouts, head-bobs, shoulder shakes, hand wrings and "tells" when they're bluffing.  .  If a writer wants to enliven characters and give them dimension, it's good to take note of the immense vocabulary of human body language.


  1. In my summer session class we did an exercise where we each had to strike a stance that expressed how we were feeling that morning. It was interesting to see the different ways people came up with to express their mood non-verbally. The exercise was designed to make us more aware of our body language, and in turn, make us aware of our character's body language. The character that developed in that class, brushes that wisp of hair back, just as you described, when she's trying to assess her situation. Just a small detail, but it makes her seem more real. I love it.

  2. More than three years later and I'm just now seeing your comment. Apologies, KL. You've been loyal to a fault. I missed this lovely comment and was deprived of your wisdom. I am now correcting that oversight. Good comment, Kaye Lynn!


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