Monday, July 25, 2011

Leaning Against the Doorjamb - Characters and Body Language

“Characterization is an accident that flows out of action and dialogue.” - Jack Woodford

I saw this quote today and it got me thinking. When I write, I try to have a good idea of who my character is, what she wants and what will get in her way; but the way she speaks, her patterns of behavior and her body language are just as important. I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s what makes a two-dimensional character jump off the page and into our heads as a real entity.

Let’s suppose my character is a servant in a fantasy world; is it believable for her grammar and her speech to be impeccable? No, not really. It’s possible, but not really realistic (yes, I know it’s a fantasy world, but there has to be some realism!). What if she was a princess? Would she be dropping the endings of her words? Most likely – no. The style of speech is just as important as the word choice. Speaking in a more formal manner would be appropriate for a princess, but not really for a servant – the level of education and exposure is different. In order for the dialogue to be believable, the pattern of speech has to be true to who the character is inherently.

This rings true for patterns of behavior as well. Deviations from the character’s expected actions show growth, that’s true; but if the character’s actions aren’t somewhat predictable at the beginning, how will the reader be able to identify her growth? If she is afraid of dragons and always runs and hides when one flies by, then when she stands her ground, it is easier for the reader to see that she has found her spine. If she is consistently spoiled and greedy at the beginning of the story and her actions have established that, when she gives up her meal for a child who is begging in the streets, the reader is more easily able to identify her growth.

Body language is just as strong an indicator as patterns of behavior and speech when it comes to characterization. We can tell people that a character thinks something but showing the thought through action and body language is so much more powerful. If my character is feeling disgusted by someone, instead of saying “She thought he was disgusting”; I can show it through her actions and her body language: “She leaned away from him as he moved closer, the smell from his unwashed body attacking her nose.” It’s not just about the author’s insight into the characters thoughts and feelings; it’s about the character’s body language. True, it may be more concise to just tell the reader she thought he was disgusting, but it’s more visual to describe her reaction to him. It’s the old standby “show, don’t tell”. If I tell the readers she thought he was disgusting, they will know how she feels, but if I illustrate it through her actions, they will identify with it; after all, I’m sure we’ve all had to move away from someone who was “less than fresh” in our lifetimes! It’s body language that we all use and can identify with, even if we aren’t aware that we do it on occasion.

Writing is about storytelling. Stories are about the characters we create in our minds. If the characters are flat, the story falls on its face. So how do we inflate our characters into thinking, breathing, living beings? We show them thinking, living, breathing, reacting and growing.

Do you keep your characters’ patterns of behavior, speech and body language in mind when you are writing?