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  • Beth Daniels aka Beth Henderson, J. B. Dane

CHARACTER TELLS, VISUAL AND NON-VISUAL PHYSICAL MOVEMENT


What kind of a story would it be if the characters weren’t moving around though? One about statues that didn’t benefit from living in a DR WHO world, that’s what! Pretty dull.

So let’s get these people moving around.

Let’s add another dimension to the description of your characters.

CHARACTER TELLS

In the event you’ve never hear of “tells” before, they seem to go part and parcel with holding a hand of cards. In poker, a careful observer will be able to match the unconscious, seemingly casual movements of a player with the sort of hand they are holding. These could be rearranging the cards in their hand, scratching their nose, etc. If tells are worked out ahead of time between two players, either partners at bridge or con artists, they can relay what sort of hand the other is holding.

Now, if your characters are playing cards, tells should probably be a regular part of the game.

But if they aren’t playing cards? Well, there’s still plenty of things they can do that will tell the reader who is moving even if a name isn’t mentioned.

Does a heroine play with a strand of her hair, push a strand back from her face, tucking it behind her ear? Does she bite down lightly on one corner of her lip when thinking, squint her eyes, furrow her brow. Does she hold her breath, wring her hands, play with a ring on her finger, fuss with her collar or earring? Does she toss her hair, glance over her shoulder?

Does a hero run his hand back through his hair in frustration (I find mine do that a lot and tell myself “you have got to find a new tell!”)? Does he rub a hand along his jaw, back to rub the nape of his neck, let a breath of air escape with enough power to be felt a foot away? Does he balance his ankle on the opposite knee when he sits? Does he cross his ankles, legs stretched out, his stance slouched in a chair? Does he straddle straight chairs so that he’s facing backwards resting his arms on the chair back? Does he throw one leg over the arm of an overstuffed chair? Does he sit at a desk with his feet on the corner or on the rim of an open lower drawer?

And what about the villain or other secondary characters? Unless the villain is a Snidley Whiplash sort in black cape and over-curled thin handlebar mustache, the way they move shouldn’t be much different than the hero or heroine…and yet there should be a subtle difference.

PHYSICAL VISUAL MOVEMENT and NON-VISUAL PHYSICAL MOVEMENT

Seem a bit redundant to put both physical and visual in the same phrase? Well, if someone moves in the dark you can’t necessarily SEE them, can you? But if you know that person very well, you know who it is because you’ve been aided by their scent even if you are unaware of it. However, if it’s a stranger, you know that right away and I think that’s more than just scent, therefore so was the recognition of the person you know. A thief could use the same soap a husband, lover or father uses after all, but he won’t move the same way they do.

Keep this in mind as you sidle up next to your characters now. Think in both the visual and the physical – granted most of these things will involve the visual physical movement rather than physical movement that isn’t visual. Just offering the non-visual as an upgrade to this category.

So here’s a set of questions to get you started. Close your eyes and give the character in question the nod to move. Watch everything they do throughout a normal day. Keep the words you use simple. We’ll enhance them in a bit. First we need something to work with.

HOW DO THEY WALK ACROSS A ROOM? LENGTH OF STRIDE, SOUND OF FOOTFALLS, ANYTHING ELSE YOU OBSERVE THEM DOING.

WHEN THEY STARE OUT A WINDOW OR PAUSE BEFORE ENTERING A ROOM, WHAT IS THEIR STANCE LIKE?

WHEN THEY JOIN FRIENDS FOR A DRINK OR DINNER AT A TABLE, HOW DO THEY SIT ON THE CHAIR? IF AT A COUNTER, HOW DO THEY SIT ON THE BAR STOOL?

WHEN IN CHARGE, OR IN A FORMAL OR BUSINESS SETTING, HOW DO THEY MOVE? DO THEY HAVE A READY HANDSHAKE, A WELCOMING GRIN OR IS IT A CURT QUICKLY OVER IN TWO SECONDS HANDSHAKE WITH A NEARLY INFINTESTIMAL NOD AND NO FACIAL EXPRESSION PER SE? IS IT A TEST OF STRENGTH GRIP WHEN MEETING ANOTHER MAN WHETHER RIVAL OR NOT (AND THIS COULD ALSO APPLY TO A WOMAN MEETING A MAN AND DETERMINED TO SHOW HIM WHO’S BOSS)?

WHEN SPEAKING TO SOMEONE OF THE OPPOSITE SEX HOW DO THEY HOLD THEMSELVES, WHAT EXPRESSIONS CROSS THEIR FACE?

WHEN MEETING OR SPEAKING TO CHILDREN HOW DO THEY ACT? WHAT DO THEY SAY?

WHEN THEY GO UP A STAIRCASE, IS IT ONE STEP AT A TIME OR TWO AT A TIME AT A RUN OR NEAR RUN EVEN IF THERE IS NO RUSH?

WHEN THEY TAKE AN ELEVATOR DO THEY LEAN ON THE CALL BUTTON OR MERELY PUSH IT. DO THEY STAND UPRIGHT IN THE ELEVATOR OR LEAN AGAINST THE WALL OR A RAIL? FOR THAT MATTER WHERE DO THEY STAND IN THE ELEVATOR IF ALONE? WHICH SIDE OR SPOT DO THEY MOVE TO WHEN ANOTHER PERSON ENTERS? WILL THEY HOLD THE DOOR SO THAT IT WON’T CLOSE TO ALLOW SOMEONE TO RUSH ONBOARD OR LET THE DOOR CLOSE WITHOUT AN EFFORT TO STOP IT?

GIVEN THE OPTION, WILL THEY TAKE AN ELEVATOR OR FIND THE STAIRCASE?

WHEN STANDING NEXT TO THEIR CAR WAITING FOR SOMEONE, DO THEY LEAN ON THE FRONT OR REAR BUMPER? DO THEY STAY INSIDE THE VEHICLE?

WHEN LISTENING TO MUSIC WHILE DRIVING, DO THEY TAP THEIR FINGERS OR PALMS AGAINST THE WHEEL? NOD THEIR HEAD IN SYNC WITH THE BEAT? SING AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS OR UNDER THEIR BREATH OR NOT AT ALL?

WHEN DRIVING DO THEY KEEP BOTH HANDS ON THE WHEEL AND IF SO, ON WHAT PART OF THE WHEEL – TOP CURVE, BOTTOM CURVE WITH PALMS RESTING IN LAP, ONE ON EITHER SIDE OF THE WHEEL? DO THEY DRIVE WITH ONE HAND AND HAVE AN ELBOW HOOKED OVER THE RIM OF AN OPEN WINDOW OR ALONG THE BACK OF THE SEAT NEXT TO THEM?

WHEN ORDERING A BEER WILL IT BE DRAFT IN A MUG, IN A BOTTLE, IN A BOTTLE BUT WITH A GLASS TO POUR IT IN?

WHEN TRYING TO ORDER IN A RESTAURANT, DO THEY CRANE THEIR NECKS LOOKING FOR THE WAITER OR WAITRESS, DO THEY LET THEIR EYES ROAM THE ROOM UNTIL THE WAITER OR WAITRESS’S ATTENTION IS CAUGHT AND THEN TIP THEIR HEAD OR CHIN OR TWITCH A FINGER? DO THEY NOT LOOK AROUND AT ALL, MERELY SNAP THEIR FINGERS FOR ATTENTION?

ARE THERE CERTAIN WORDS THAT GET THEIR BACK UP, LIKE BEING CALLED “HONEY” BY A WAITRESS OR BARTENDER (DEPENDING ON THEIR SEX)? I once got called into the boss’s office because in writing a piece in the company newsletter about one of the employees who’d just had a baby I called her a “gal” and someone took exception to that, insisting that if she was old enough to give birth she was a “woman.” Personally I hate being called a “woman” because I have no intention of growing out of being a “girl.”

ARE THERE CERTAIN WORDS THAT THE CHARACTER USES IN REFERRING TO PEOPLE, PARTICULARLY ONES OF THE OPPOSITE SEX OR ONES THEY DON’T LIKE?

WHEN THEY GO TO THE MOVIES, DOES THIS CHARACTER KEEP THEIR FEET GLUED TO THE STICKY FLOOR? DO THEY CROSS THEIR LEGS IN THE NARROW SPACE? DO THEY PUT ONE OR MORE FEET AGAINST THE BACK OF THE CHAIR BEFORE THEM? FOR THAT MATTER, WHERE DO THEY USUALLY TAKE A SEAT? BACK ROW, CENTER, DOWN FRONT?

EVEN WHEN THEY ARE ALONE, WHAT SIDE OF THE BED DO THEY SLEEP ON?

ARE THEY RIGHT HANDED OR LEFT HANDED? DO THEY HOLD A PINKY FINGER OUT WHEN DRINKING A CUP OF TEA? DO THEY WRAP THEIR HAND AROUND A MUG OR HOLD IT BY THE HANDLE? DO THEY SIP, SAVOR, OR GULP A DRINK DOWN? HOW DO THEY TAKE THEIR COFFEE IF THEY DRINK COFFEE?

Okay, I hope you get the idea here. All of these things – and more – are what sets one character apart from another.

So what might I say about one of my characters at first in regards to these movements and tells…these habits, likes and dislikes that are likely to result in some kind of conscious or unconscious movement? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to give examples for all of them.)

Example:

When Lang Avery moves across a room his stride is long, he covers distance quickly.

When he pauses in a doorway to listen to a conversation, he might lean against the molding, one hand resting on the butt of his pistol in the holster on his belt or brace his forearms along the outer molding as he leans forward slightly.

He keeps his low crowned, wide brimmed hat tilted forward over his eyes. When at rest his hands aren’t still – may play harmonica or rub calloused fingertips together as though rolling something between them.

Hooks one boot heel on the rail along the bottom of a bar while leaning opposite elbow on the counter.

Okay, let’s upgrade these to the next level now.

How about that stride? As effortlessly graceful as a cougar in pursuit of prey, each footfall as silent as a cat’s tread, as swift as a winter bred zephyr

And in that doorway? How about: The crown of his hat nearly brushing the lintel, he dipped one shoulder, angling it against the jamb, propping it there, folding bared forearms across his chest so that one hand rested near the reversed butt of the Navy Colt .44 at his belt.

I’ll confess…I probably went overboard a bit to illustrate what you can do to push the physical movement up a notch. Then again…you know, I kind of like some of this. If it was broken up rather than a single description…has possibilities.

An excerpt from DESCRIPTION: ENHANCE YOUR STORYLINE


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