|Angela at the Grand Canyon|
If there is one universal struggle I hear about from writers, it is repeat gesturing. This is when those shrugs, frowns, feet shuffling and smiles sprinkle themselves across a manuscript because they are obvious choices to show a character’s emotions.
The most common are ones that involve the eyes, face and hands, as well as internal ‘tells’ such as heartbeat and breathing changes.
The big problem with obvious gesturing is that it is often synonymous with tired and overused, or worse, cliché.
Settling for phrasing that’s been done to death can not only make a character’s actions and emotions seem a bit hollow, it can also impact the empathy link between reader and character. For readers to fully immerse themselves in the story and character’s plight, they need to invest themselves emotionally. This means not only creating compelling circumstances that allow for rich, emotional interaction between characters, it means bringing the reader up close and letting them experience what the character is feeling.
Fresh writing is the key to emotional showing, and this means thinking beyond the basics of body language. It also means understanding the body’s instinctive responses (known as visceral reactions) and the thought process that accompanies an emotional experience. Drawing on all three of these as you describe will bright about a rich, layered description that will captivate readers.
Here are three tips to put the fresh back into your expressions.
1) Mine Your Memories
Sit back from the keyboard for a moment and think about what emotion your character is feeling. There may be several, but one will be the root cause of the others.
When you find it, think about a time where you felt the same emotion. Then, recreate that moment and allow your body to take over. What is it doing?
Let’s pretend it’s guilt. Is there a sour taste in your mouth? Does your stomach bunch up? Does your throat feel painful?
Act out the feeling and move around. Do you hold your arms close to the body? Is your posture slumped? Are your eyes closed, or open?
Keep mining until you find a movement that is fresh and unique.
2) Use the Setting
Setting is so much more than a backdrop, so have your character interact with it. Touching is intimate. What objects within the setting trigger feelings of safety or strife? Build these into the scene and show your character react to them.
Body language will also shift depending on how a person can express themselves. Confined to a chair, a character may show emotion differently than he would standing around a campfire, or in an elevator full of people.
Personality and comfort level will also affect body language, because people act differently alone versus in a group.
3) Watch People (but don’t be creepy about it)
I know, this one seems a bit basic, but it’s something all writers
should be doing. And don’t shy away from locations that provide high
emotion either–people who are visibly upset, excited or frustrated are
treasure troves of unique body movements!
|Sasha takes five in Angela’s favorite reading spot.|
Take advantage of wherever you are–a doctor’s office waiting room, at a pub watching the game, hustling through the grocery store.
Keep an eye out for that uncomfortable patient, exuberant fan, or overwrought mom with three kids bouncing all around her.
Bottom line is that each of us express ourselves in our own way, and we must strive to do this with our characters. Dig deeper and think beyond the ‘easy’ gestures. Then, using a combination of thoughts, visceral responses and body movement, create your character’s unique emotional footprint on the page!
Angela Ackerman is a Canadian who writes on the darker side of middle grade and young adult. A strong believer in writers helping writers, she blogs at the award winning resource, The Bookshelf Muse, and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression (also by Becca Puglisi). Angela is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the challenging terrain of showing character emotion. This brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.
Enter to win The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Author sponsored; eligibility: U.S./Canada.