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.

Avoiding the Rory Gilmore Syndrome

I love the TV show Gilmore Girls. The writers created such a fantastic story world with Stars Hollow and powered it all with quirky, fast-talking, beautiful Lorelai and Rory Gilmore.

But the writers fell into a characterization hole, IMHO, when Rory became too-perfect-to-live. Too good to be true. Every man and his brother, every girl and her sister loved Rory.

All who met her believed she hung the moon, stars and visited the Sombrero galaxy while stirring brownie mix for pale-skinned orphans.

She was smart.

She was beautiful.

She was quick and engaging, a repartee’s repartee.

She was kind and giving, her mother’s best friend. The girl next door, the one to take home to mom, and dad.

She couldn’t golf or run fast, but who cared? What an endearing flaw. We love her for even trying.

She was the town queen when they needed one. The star of the play. The girl the town celebrated when she graduated from Yale. The whole town!

Without so much as a flick of her hair, Rory stole the heart of the cutest boy in town – who refurbished an antique Mustang for her, no less.

She nabbed the attention Chilton High’s most popular boy, and followed that by taming the affections of one bad-boy-come-lately, Jess.

Next, she tripped-up the heart of the first boy she met at Yale, Marty, but he was a dull flame compared to the charming, handsome, rich and not-to-be-bridled, Logan.

But in the end Rory tamed that wild boy too and he gave her his heart and fidelity.

Wow. What a girl. Rory Gilmore had true super power.

Okay, we get it. Rory is Ah-mazing. In fact, too amazing.

When she jumped seniority to be given the Managing Editor position at the Yale Daily News, the writers went too far with their own desire to create a near perfect woman.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Yale is Ivy League, no? Everyone who worked on that paper wanted to be the head-honcho editor because it was a huge resume booster. The proverbial foot-in-the-door to the journalistic elite. But somehow, the entire staff cow-towed to Rory and gave her the job. Begged her to take it.

Because she’s just that sweet and wonderful?

No. I don’t buy it.

No to such characters in my own books. No to these types of characters in your books.

Not everyone loves our heroine. Be selective about who loves your girl, how and why. If she is simply ice-cream and cake and all that, then where is the conflict?  Where is the antagonist? Worse, the antagonist will be someone too easy to hate – because after all, our girl just MUST BE LOVED.  She’s awesome.

No, she can’t be perfect, because then…why should she change? Where is the character journey?  Where are the flaws she can overcome?

Start with a character who is just likeable enough…then reveal the good qualities of your protagonist as she lives out her life journey on the page.

Another flaw of the Rory-writers was they kept telling us how smart she was, how good, swell and amazing. They forced the dialog to get us to believe what we didn’t see.

Most of the time I saw an ordinary girl, though smart and driven, fall into all the same trappings as every other girl.

I didn’t see on the screen her wonderfulness. I just heard other people talking about it.

If the heroine is going to do something extraordinary, it’d better play out on the page. Let the reader, not the other characters, declare: She’s great! I love her.

Here are some principles to avoiding the Rory Gilmore Syndrome:

  1. Create a grand and great heroine, one that is talented and beautiful. One the hero will fall head over heels for. However,  keep her wonderfulness to those who matter. The entire cast should not love her.
  2. Don’t spend good dialog time telling me how great a character is when you can show me. Don’t let your girl win at everything…have her fail occasionally. And maybe she doesn’t get everything at the end. Let the story, the setting, the actions of the characters reveal the good heart and true nature of your heroine. As a reader, I’ll bite. I’m willing. I’m ready. I want to love this girl.

 

Here’s what I mean. I’m reading a book right now where the heroine is just “too loved” by the rest of the characters. Everyone who walks across the page just “loves” this heroine.

Her mother gushes to herself in annoying internal thought how everyone will see how talented and beautiful her daughter is as she shines with the love of Jesus.

The more I read, the more I don’t like this heroine because everyone in her life is TELLING me she’s great and I’m not seeing any of it.

Sure, she’s likable. She’s a good character, but I want to see her living her life. What’s her flaw that she has to struggle through that makes me cheer for her? To like her all the more?

What’s the lie she believes that makes me shout to the page, “No, don’t believe it?”

What are her fears and desires, and how does she use one to overcome the other?

The heroine’s journey shouldn’t be a series of delayed accomplishments, but true disappointments and setbacks.

Here’s an example:  if your heroine loves Tom, the UPS delivery man who comes to her office every day, but he’s dating her best friend and about to propose, she has to realize there’s no way he’s going to ever ask her out on a date. That’s a true dilemma. A conflict. Because her heart is engaged and going to be broken.

She watches what she thinks she wants exiting her life and nothing, nothing can replace it.

However, if you are caught in the RG Syndrome, you might have the UPS guys say to her, “I’d ask you out if I wasn’t seeing someone else. You seem like the kind of girl I’d like to be with.”  Oh no! You’ve just let character off the hook!  Of course the world, including the UPS man, loves her.  He just chose too soon.  Down deep, she still has his heart.

At this point the reader says “bye-bye” to tension. And maybe your book.

That kind of dialog and story thread is not a setback for your heroine. It’s not conflict. It’s an “Oh well, can’t win them all. But boy, I’m sure great.”

Meanwhile… the guy in the cubical next to hers is ga-ga over her and just made manager of their project. He’s moving on up. What a great guy. When he asks her out, she thinks to herself in annoying internal dialog, “Steve is a great guy too. I guess I could like him. It’s clear Tom is not for me. Has it been the right guy for me sat next to me all this time?”

Writers, friends, countrymen, do not do this. It’s NOT conflict. It’s NOT tension!  Great tension holds what she wants out there, and then takes it away! Tells her she can’t get it.  The RG Syndrome makes her shallow. And don’t tag on a, “God might be leading me this way,” to try to convince me she’s not emotionally ping-ponging between two men, between what she wants.  Give her a firm want, and then deny her anything that looks like it.

Unfortunately, most people, including writers, don’t like conflict. We want readers to love the “Rory,” so we are tempted to put her on the page. This is what the writers of Gilmore Girls did with their star.

The Rory Gilmore Syndrome comes from a writer making the character too shallow, too perfect, and too over the top for anyone to believe in.

So stop. Give your heroine real conflict. Real emotions. A real dilemma that even her charm, beauty and talent cannot overcome. Sure, fiction is hyperbole. It has over the top, large than life elements. Great stories are often about insurmountable odds, about the impossible and the incredible. But make your character real. Even though she faces something none of us might ever face, we like to think we can overcome just like our girl. Because, let’s face it – we’re not Rory Gilmore, are we?

Think Elizabeth Bennett when crafting your heroines and avoid the Rory Gilmore Syndrome.

Rachel Hauck

 

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.