Friday, July 14, 2006

V - Body Shop

Thomas a Becket giving Henry II the finger.

Watch people.
Watch the way they walk, hold their heads, fold their hands, stand, sit, eat, rub their foreheads, cross their eyes, pinch the bridge of their nose, tug at earlobes, chew at the side of their mouth, scratch their head, nose, arm-pits , their ass.
People fiddle with pencils, their hair, glasses, necklines, jewellery. Pick at lint, their cuticles, scabs, their nose.
All pretty generic.
All action - but not particularly distinct or individual.
When the heroine licks her lips under the intense, burning gaze of the manly hero, we get the idea that she's thinking dirty thoughts, or at least is aware he is thinking dirty thoughts.
What was it Dorothy Parker said? Something like: "If all the girls who attend the Harvard and Yale proms were laid end to end."
You have to do more with body language than simply make stereotypical note of it if you're going to make the character distinct and individual.
Lip-licking may signal anticipation, but it doesn't make our hot-pants girl particularly memorable.
She's still a paper figure, a blow-up doll, no matter how pink her tongue or how pouty and lush her lips.
A lawer I know, before he signs a document, flourishes his pen exactly like a squirrel flounces its tail before it takes off down the fence rail after filching my raspberries.
I know a woman who always drapes her pearls over her nose when she's talking. Remember another who would sit and idly singe her split ends with her cigarette.
John Buchan has a tough little street kid, a Gorbel Die-Hard, named Wee Jaikie,( if I remember right) who weeps when he fights.
A rather ordinary bit of body language - such as a person clasping their hands behind their back and rocking back and forth - becomes more indicative of an impatient characteristic (not just generic impatience) if that person does it more than once during the course of the narrative. Careful repetition will install in the reader a sense of the character's individuality, even for a fairly mundane habit such as this.
Also may operate as a signal to the reader to anticipate further action, a kind of minor suspense.
Oh-ho, he's freaking angry, last time he was pissed he did thus-and-so, wonder what's coming up...
Back to the lip-licker, ie. the sexual tension set-up.
Individual body language makes a character most memorable when it speaks a part in crucial, dramatic scenes. Something uniquely hers/his which turns him/her on.
Give him/her a habit. Maybe she covers her eyes with one hand and peeks through her fingers. Maybe she backs up exactly two steps and crosses her arms with hands on opposite shoulders. Maybe she does a slow roll with her hips.
OK, so those are rather stupid, but you get the drift.
Don't want to give away all Damie's/John's little tricks. Like the way she says his name. John is rather hot.
And the signature action(s) of this type should include the scene itself, maybe particularly the scene itself, not just the build-up.
No need for outre sexual variations either, btw. That approach tends to focus on the act, or the place, or the toys, rather than the individuals involved.
The secret is to make the characters special, individual.
Have you read a particularly engaging, endearing and memorable example of body language?


M.E Ellis said...

I can't say I've read anything lately, or at all (!) where a character had a habit like this. Hmm, something for me to think about and maybe put into 5 P's.

Thanks! (again!)


Scott said...

Thank you very much Bernita. This is a timely post for me. I started a short story and was thinking how stiff my characters were. If I could work in a few traits like this, the people might seem more real.

Dennie McDonald said...

obviosuly nothing has stood out as I can think of nothing... but I will my heroines tend to get eye tics when annoyed - I guess I need to lighten up on that as I can think of 3 or 4 ...hmmm

Flood said...

I'm with Scott. I try to make my character's thoughts or dialogue interesting, but rarely give them real-life movement. I'll try to work that in better. Thanks!

MissWrite said...

All of the pieces you've done on creating character individuality have been very insightful. When you pick them apart though, it does begin to look a bit obserd. That's why it's not the little individual 'quirks', ie: their speach patterns, their dress code, their habits, their attitudes--it's ALL of them combined. Everything. It's those things that make us all individuals really.

When you think about it, what, besides the superficial things like weight, hair/skin color, eye color make us any different from one another. I mean, for the most part, baring deformity, most of us have two hands, attached to two arms, attached to a body, attached to two legs, with two feet, topped with a head held on by a slender column of neck. Not a particularly attractive way of stating it, but hey, that's the bare bones of it.

You might be able to differentiate me by the way I speak--patterns, inflections, etc, maybe not though if you put me in a crowd of people from my neighborhood. So if all the characters in your book (or at least the majority) are from a single locale, they are all going to sound fairly similar.

But if you combine everything you've gone over so far in your series, and this piece, you probably are going to come up with a much more individualized character.

Being a writer is a subtle talent. It seems like everybody should be able to do it. Walking the tightrope between well-done, and over-done, or not done enough is a tricky prospect though.

Bernita said...

"5 P's", Michelle?
Am dim again.

That's wonderful, Scott, hope it helps.
Probably will come to you when you get to know them better.

Eye tics sounds individual and unusual, Dennie.

You're welcome, Flood.
Very pleased if the post helps.

Anonymous said...

These actions are a wonderful tool and are very effective. However, they must be used extremely sparingly. I've seen several writing examples out there on the internet where folks have tried to avoid dialog attributions (he said/she said) by using these actions. Once you see three of these on a page it becomes very damaging to the pacing.

"Are you going to eat that?" Mary clanked the fork on her plate.

"No. Didn't you get enough?" Sally brushed the hair from her eyes.

"I've probably worked up an appetite from all this unnecessary action." Mary rubbed her hands.

Bernita said...

The idea of the exercise,Tami, was to put them all together, as appropriate, but to be wary of cliches.
One assumes judicious use of techniques.
The understanding that we may do all of them but yet not do them well enough is a given. It is also a beginning.
Sorry you find the method absurd.
They were meant as hopefully helpful ways and means of looking at characters.

MissWrite said...

Quote:Sorry you find the method absurd.
They were meant as hopefully helpful ways and means of looking at characters.

NOOOOO. I appologize if it sounded like I was saying your method of doing this was bad. Not at all. I just meant that any of these point, attributes, etc, seem 'over-the-top' on their own. In fact it highlights the fact.

Anyway, please, please do not take offense, and I am sorry.

Bernita said...

Think that's a quite different use for body language than I discussed, Jason.
These are dreadfully generic.
You've given good examples of going-to-hell-with-the-action-in-place-of-tag, though.
Unless Mary perennially rubbes her hands together.

Anonymous said...

It's not absurd at all. It's a great tool. A direct route to strong characters.

My example was overdone not to make light of it. It's one of those very, very delicate tools. Just a little too much of it causes harm. I found all sorts of examples in my writing where I had birds singing or crickets chirping in between dialog. That's kind of the same problem.

No offense intended. My apologies.

MissWrite said...

Actually, I just HAD to come back here and say one more thing. I just posted this morning on my blog about something that has been really bugging me lately as I read through the sludge. I won't go into it except to say that it is WONDERFUL that you do this on your blog. Really investigate what works, and what doesn't, why, how it might work for you, and maybe not someone else. Everything you, and the folks who come here to read, and comment, do here in your efforts to work through developing your craft shows how very much you, (and everyone here) really cares about improving your writing.

Anonymous said...

Oops, our comments crossed. Yes, I'm probably off a tangent.

Bernita said...

~ears reassuming their upright position~
Thank you, Tami, for your addendum.
If nothing else, we have the right attitude.

Thank you, Jason. Irrelevant action and meanless gestures are a different rant alltogether, I think.

Ric said...

I always like Hercule Poirot,his mannerisms, and fastidiousness. You feel as though you could pick him out of a crowd. And it fits his character so well.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Splendid idea, Bernita! It's challenging to think of a physical personality quirk that you can fit in to a written story somewhat obtrusively -- but it can be done. I'm sure I've read some of them somewhere.

Personally, I have an eye tic. When I'm stressed my left eye twitches like there's a bug in my lower lashes that won't go away. It's weird.

Bernita said...

Just an excellent case in point, Ric!

You're a real life example of Dennie's heroine, Sonya.
I know someone who stretches like an Egyptian temple dancer and then like a Bali one.

kmfrontain said...

Ah, good. I had my morning grin. Thanks, Bernita. Your blog always educates and makes me smile at the same time. Rare combo.

And now I gots to go back to work. ::and she skitters off to MS Word::

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Bernita...."...~ears reassuming their upright position~" cat does that...LOL...we call it airplane ears...LOL

Anyhow, what you wrote completely vocalizes my thought from yesterday. I take a person that I can tell how they think or feel because their actions are predictibly regular.'d be surpized how many quirks the average person has, if you wantch them on a regular basis...Great post!

You really should create an archive for these lessons....and someday I could be truncating your 'How to' book on my blog...LOL!

Bernita said...

I probably picked these up from reading yours and everyone else's stuff, Karen.
Nice of you to say. Thank you.

Hee, my Bonnie, by that time it would have to be titled: The Geriatric's Guide To...
But you are absolutely right,people have many, many, little personal gestures one can sift through to find ones that will fit and enhance a character. You already know the form.

M.E Ellis said...

5 P's - Five Pyramids - WIP that S.W is reading as I write.


archer said...

He said nothing at all. He stirred his coffee round and round, he sipped it, he felt his chin softly with his grisly hand, he looked at the fire, he looked about the room, he gasped rather than smiled at me, he writhed and undulated about, in his deferential servility, he stirred and sipped again, but he left the renewal of the conversation to me.

--David Copperfield,
Ch.25, in which David describes a visit from Uriah Heep.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Correction, M.E: which S.W. is LOVING as you write! :-)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Michelle. Good title. And, apparently, great story. Does not surprise me for some reason.

Thank you, Archer. Another excellent example. Unctuous Uriah. He oozed.

Dakota Knight said...

Bernita, great post! I can't think of any interesting traits I've picked up on lately, but I'm in the same boat as Scott, trying to liven up stiff characters.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Dakota. You'll have no trouble.

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