Classic Being a Better Writer: Breathing Life into Characters

Welcome back to another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Really quickly, a quick update for Patreon Supporters: Still playing catch up for last month, but look for something (hopefully) this weekend. That’s all.

So, Classic BaBW post? That’s right. If you’re new here, Classic posts dig into a four-year archive of weekly BaBW articles to dig up a couple that are relevant to one another, delivering a triple or sometimes quadruple whammy of writing advice! Great for those who haven’t yet had a chance to archive binge or that are looking for help on a particular topic!

Today’s selection? A series of posts on ways to help our characters become more alive for the reader and feel more tangible. So sit back, grab a snack, and hit up those links!


Showing Character Through Dialogue—
Now let’s put this in a scene. We have a grizzled FBI man, undercover on a train, sitting in his seat and pretending to be a newspaper. His passenger, a woman who has no idea who he is, turns towards him and asks “Would you like some gum?”

Now, let’s look at his response. The grammatically correct response is “No, thanks.” However, what differences does this imply about his character over “No thanks,” without any pause? One is timely, implies a pause and perhaps some thought. The other is brusque, pre-determined, almost dismissive, and can be more so based on what action he couples with his statement.

Whoa. Did we really just read all that out based on whether or not a single comma was present in the dialogue?


Body Language—
How important are these social cues? Incredibly important. We can build entire opinions of individuals before they even open their mouths to speak, based simply on things like stance, hand and arm position, and facial cues. Much of our interaction with those around us is as much physical as it is spoken, based off of these cues. To give you an idea of how much, look at animated features—especially modern, CG animations over the last ten years. I recently came across a group of animators and dedicated animation fans discussing the movie Zootopia‘s use of facial animation compared to prior CG films, and they were talking about the close attention to detail the film provided. It was all little things, small stuff like character’s noses or ears twitching (these are anthropomorphic animal characters, after all) or tiny, subtle movements of their eyes or lips. But the point of this comparing to earlier films by even the same studio (Disney) and pointing out how these very small social cues made for a much better experience: Despite being anthropomorphic animal characters, the cast from Zootopia felt more human than ever … in part because of the ability to animate all these small social cues that we’ve come to expect in the real world. It made the characters feel more human.

And yet … despite how important these cues are, despite how valuable body language is to many of us on an hourly basis … many young writers miss it entirely. They fall into the trap of simple presentation, of telling a reader rather than showing them.


Giving Characters a Leitmotif—
Well, perhaps I should start out explaining what a leitmotif is, for those of you who don’t know, just so that we’re all on the same page. A leitmotif is, essentially, a recurring musical theme in a piece of music that is associated with an idea, emotion, or—more often—a character or a situation. Which to some of you probably sounds like nonsense unless I point out some of the more well-known leitmotifs out there: Those in film. Specifically, leitmotifs found in films like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. Sit back for a moment, if you will, and picture one of those films. Now picture a character or a scene from them and see if your mind calls a bit of fanfare forward.

Which is pretty cool, to be honest. But it probably doesn’t answer the question most of you have on your minds now that we’ve discussed all this; likely some form of “What does this have to do with writing?” Again, as I already said, we don’t havemusical cues in literature. At least, not yet. Outside of a few experimental online pieces, music does not feature prominently (or really, at all) inside fiction. So, what am I talking about?

Actually, I’m talking about cues that make your character recognizable.


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Being a Better Writer: Body Language

How do you show that a character is angry? Or nervous? How do you show that two characters are not on the best of terms with one another while they are on decent standing with another member of their group? Or that one of them is nervous? Jumpy?

Now, note my usage of show in the questions above. I didn’t ask how a writer could tell a reader of any of those things. No, I asked how they could show them. Once more, we come back to the old show versus tell discussion, except this time, I don’t want to focus as much on the mechanics of showing versus tell as I do on one small, simple question: How do you show a character being angry, nervous, or upset without simply telling the reader? How do you get those emotions across without simply pointing out to the reader that “Samantha was angry” or using the dreaded “ly” adverb? Especially if we’re writing from a perspective that isn’t the focal point of the emotion we want to get across?

Which is why today, we’re going to talk about body language in our writing. This might test our observational skills a little (after all, how often do you just watch conversation?), as well as our understanding of social graces and signals. And we’re going to look at what goes into a silent conversation.

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