Using Body Language to Write Stronger Characters

Sometimes I look up from writing a scene at my computer and my family is watching me.

One or two of them look concerned. Another one is muffling laughter behind their hands. And my husband? Well, he’s got the “she didn’t tell me she was a writer when I met her” look in his eyes.

Looking around the room, I realize I’m at it again: my brow is furrowed. I’m muttering under my breath. Maybe running my fingers through my hair. Or maybe I’m twisting my hands together in front of me. Or biting my bottom lip. Or trying to figure out how a person produces a crooked half smile … I mean, is that even possible?

Admit it! If you’re a writer, you’ve done it too — acted out a character’s facial expression or posture, trying to figure out how to best write emotion so that you show, don’t tell.

The challenge goes beyond not wanting to look crazy to our family — although there is that. It’s wanting to move beyond the  descriptors we’ve read before and come up with something fresh.

You can only read about a character chewing on their thumb nail (nervousness) or rubbing their hand on the back of their neck (frustration) or standing with their hands fisted on their hips (defiance/anger) so many times before you think “Been there, read that.”

Last week, when I found myself waving my hands in the air — and yes, looking up and seeing my family watching me with that “oh, no, here she goes again” look — I abandoned my solitary game of charades and tried something different:

I googled the phrase  body language for frustration.

  • One website showed a basic image of — you guessed it — a man rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. This, it turns out, is a very common signal for frustration. But the website also listed other ways we express frustration, including:
    • vigorously scratching your hands or face
    • tapping your hands against your lap
    • shaking your foot repeatedly
  • Another tumblr post by Reference for Writers worth checking out is 41 Emotions as Expressed through Body Language
  • And then there’s this Body Language Cheat Sheet from Writers Write.
  • You can also type in a phrase like angry body language or sad body language and than click on the “image” link and explore the different images — some of which will be highlighted with descriptors to help you better understand body language.

The point is this: Don’t settle for the first facial expression or posture or hand gesture that comes to your mind. Odds are, you’ve written that before in a previous scene or chapter.

When I read through my manuscripts — fast drafts to galleys — I weed out the repetivive body language, along with the repeated words and repeated plot points. Nothing needs to keep showing up over and over in your manuscript — unless a particular action is there for a reason, like a character who has a  bad habit of chewing their nails.

Are you using body language to build strong characters?

[Tweet “Use body language to create strong characters @bethvogt #writer”]

 

Interview with a Hero

I was working on the hero of my next book and found I couldn’t get anything real out of him.

He was a bit two-dimensional.  Flat. Too single purposed. I went through my standard exercises – dark wound, lie, fear, secret desire, true destiny…

You can see that here:

Dark Moment: Being yanked from his school, his family, his home to go to another boarding school.

Lie: Don’t get close. Don’t open your heart too wide.

Fear: Love involves pain. He’s even assigned that to God. Look what He did to His own son. But Tanner knows God is real and true, and he must seek Him.  But is standoffish

Secret desire/true identity:  ??

What can he do in the end he can’t do in the beginning? Be honest about his feelings. Be okay with everything NOT being safe or neat or tied in a bow. Giving up his traditions. Taking on a NEW identity. The Duchess’s husband.

He can LOVE…

What is his story? About leaving the comfort and safety of his beliefs to explore something new and wonderful. We can stay put in God and do well, OR we can take a chance and let Him move us out of our comfort zones to deeper places in Him.

Deep calls to Deep… But what does he want???

At this point, I had no idea what he wanted. I knew who he was when the story started, but I had no idea he was really about, so I asked him a few questions. This type of exercise can help you get to know and understand your character’s motivations. This a free flow dialog that I just let happen. It’s imperfect but it really opened up the hero, Tanner, to me. To view the Interview, click Sample Character Interview.

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Rachel Hauck, My Book Therapy, The Craft and Coaching Community for Novelists
Best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She excels in seeing the deeper layers of a story. With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novel. A worship leader, board member of ACFW and popular writing teacher, Rachel is the author of over 15 novels. She lives in Florida with her husband and her dog, Lola. Contact her at: Rachel@mybooktherapy.com.

Ten Common Author Mistakes. #9

Forgetting to weave in the story elements and symbolism.

Definition: If you want to use a metaphor, like a world event or a family trait or tradition to show a contrast in the hero or heroine’s life, you must layer it in.

 

If the heroine’s life if falling a part, coming down around her like 9-11, don’t tell the reader, “her life was just like the twin towers…coming down around her.”

 

Weave it.

 

The scene opens. It’s 9-11, the heroine is preparing breakfast. She calls her husband down to breakfast but he doesn’t show up. When she goes to see what’s taking him so long, she finds him collapsed on the bathroom floor, dead.

 

As she’s calling 911, her best friend buzzes in. The twin towers were just attacked. They’re on fire and crumbling.

 

The reader gets and sees the symbolism. If they don’t, the story still works. Not every reader will get symbolism.

 

In the book Softly and Tenderly, I show Jade’s life crumbling by a truck crashing through her downtown shop. Just when she thought everything was going well, her business, her marriage, secrets surface and change everything. Instead of saying it, I ended up showing it by the shop disaster.
I read a historical once that used a war metaphor to show the division in the heroine’s family. “People were choosing sides,” the author wrote, “just like the states were choosing sides.” I appreciated the drawn analogy, but the story lost some punch of me when I was told, “look, the heroine’s life is mirroring society.”

 

What are ways to show a symbol?

 

The heroine is a unorganized, distracted artist but she drives a Ford Focus.
The hero can’t remember any of his family members but carries around a pocket watch of his grandfathers. It’s about “time.”
The heroine feels her life is stuck, she can’t move on in life, and she ponders this while waiting at a cross walk.
The heroine feels her family is falling apart as war breaks out in the nation. SHOW this!
Rule: Weave the symbol in as part of the story. Layer it into the scene.
Workshop it: Is there a symbol you can weave into your scene? What’s going on in the world around your protagonist that you can layer in as a reflection of the protag’s inner journey?

 

Rachel Hauck is an award winning,best selling
author who’s made plenty of  “author mistakes”
and lived to tell about it.

 

The Essence of Hero and Heroine

Early on we learn conflict makes a great story. Conflict elicits emotion. Tension is necessary to keep the story flowing and the readers turning pages.

In romance, it’s easy to put the hero and heroine in conflict with each other. They are the main players, the key figures on the stage and well, why not have them at opposite goals, fighting, arguing, hating one another.

Donald Maass says, “He’s hot, she’s hot, but they can’t stand each other.”

Well, true, that does make for a good story. But in our ameturish hands, a fighting hero and heroine can come across snarky, mean, petty and well, too stupid to live.

What we need to demonstrate is WHY the hero and heroine belong together. What is it about her that he loves? Why does she need him?

Let’s look at Luke and Lorelei from Gilmore Girls. He’s a grumpy diner owner. She’s a quippy inn keeper with a daughter. He’s working class. She was a debutant. They are opposites. She challenges him. He challenges her. They pull each other out of their comfort zones. They call each other’s bluff and we like it.

But Luke and Lorelei are soul mates. They have the same core and essence. Luke and Lorelei are both outspoken, independent and fierce about they way they want to live their lives. She’s antagonistic with her family. He’s sentimental about his. Luke hates the town politics. Lorelei loves everything about Stars Hollow. They are best friends. Luke is cemented in his ways, in the diner and in the town. And so is Lorelei.

Of your hero and heroine, dig deeper and find out what they have in common, what makes their hearts connect. Why do they belong together?

This is the core of every romantic relationship. Whether the story is straight up romance or one with romantic elements, we must convince the reader these two belong together! Convince the reader there is no one for Harry but Sally.

That’s not to say there is no conflict. Or tension. Or that your love birds are not direct opposites.

In the movie The Proposal, Drew and Margaret are both ambitious, book loving editors. She’s his boss. He does everything she wants in order to one day become an editor in his own right. Even if he has to fake loving her. He’s sarcastic. She’s bossy. But he has one thing she doesn’t. Family. A hometown. Roots. He’s comfortable in his life. She’s terrified of hers. But Drew gets her. He doesn’t let her get away with her arrogance. He calls her out on her stuff. He doesn’t coddle her. Margaret eventually opens up to him and realizes she cannot force this endearing man to marry her. She chooses right and leaves town. And we love them both for it.

In my recent book, Dining with Joy, Joy Ballard is a cooking show host who cannot cook. Enter the hero, Luke Redmond, a Manhattan restauranteur by way of Oklahoma. When he joins Joy’s show, he believes they are a kindred spirit. Joy tries to hid her little flaw, but because Luke can really see her, he eventually figures out her secret. At first, they need each other in a usery kind of way. She needs him to help her do the show and keep her secret. He needs her to help him rebuild his foodie reputation after loosing his Manhattan restaurant. But it becomes about more. Luke is draw to her determination, to her family and her wit. Joy is fascinated by his strength and peace. Like Luke and Lorelei, they don’t let each other pull punches. They speak the truth to each other without hesitation.

Okay, so where are you with your characters? Are they too much the same? Or do they argue and fight all the time and no one, including you, can figure out why they are breathing the same air?

Here are a few things you can do to help create the essence of your hero and heroine:

What about their personalities are alike? What is different but complimentary? List character and personality traits that they have in common, but can cause conflict. What is the story goal for each of them? How do they tie together? Is there an object or sentiment to use as a metaphor that ties them together? Dig into their work, homes, town, family and background to find common threads. How has past loves disappointed or delivered? What characteristics does he have that she admires? What makes him think the day isn’t right without seeing her? What issues do they  call each other on? How do they challenge each other? Don’t let your hero and heroine cover for or enable each other.

Next create a scenario where they have to work together. As that plot line unfolds, you’ll see their opposite traits began to gel and cause them to succeed, and thus, fall in love!

Does this help? Good. Now get writing!