Communicating characterisation to your readers
In this, my third and final post on the topic, I'm looking at how acting has helped me to develop distinctive characterisation in my novels. That's not my verdict but a common one in reviews. My favourite is this one from ace book reviewer, Nick Borrelli at Out of This World blog:
"The first thing you notice about a Phil Parker story, and this one is no different, is that there's a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on the characters and their own individual journeys, both physical and emotional. Rarely will you find such quality characterization and dialogue making you feel as if you are intimately connected to each person."
I spent thirty years teaching young people how to act, a role I enjoyed more than any other. I'm incredibly proud of those people who "made it" by forging their own careers in TV and theatre too. Before that I'd acted in several capacities (amateur, semi-professional & professional) myself. I've also written non-fiction for Drama teachers which develop the methods I've built up over that time. I suppose it's not surprising that this methodology permeated into my own writing. It certainly wasn't a conscious choice. In fact, until Nick and others commented on this quality, I hadn't noticed it!
In this post I've outlined that methodology in the hope you find it helpful. Perhaps it might spark some ideas or give you a route into exploring the characters you create.
Most of our communication arises out of body language, we just don't realise it. We read the signals other people transmit, who often don't realising they're doing that either. This is important. Misunderstandings often arise out of mis-reading these signals. We think we know how someone feels, we believe we've read their mood. We respond accordingly and it turns out to be the wrong response. Conflict, an essential part of all storytelling, is found in such places. It's why I've started this post with body language - it is easy to overlook it. Plus, as all writing tutors will tell you, the key to good writing is to "Show, Don't Tell." You show by using the character's body language, not just with their dialogue or actions. Body language requires subtlety.
Stance: the way someone holds their body is a big part of body language. We can determine a lot about their general status as a person. For instance, how intro or extrovert they are. The level of their self-confidence. Rounded shoulders can suggest a lack of confidence, a readiness to hide themselves. Sticking your chest out is the opposite. The way someone stands, how far apart their feet are, tells you more about confidence or readiness to flee. I often use simile or metaphors to convey these ideas. A stance which looked like a bird about to take flight captures their nervousness, the tension in their body. Whereas someone with feline grace looks relaxed and at ease. Aggressive body language, in a position which suggests a readiness to throw a punch, might be like any carnivorous animal confronting its prey.
Personal Space: this works in two ways. A character can invade another person's personal space and that tells you something about both of them. However, consider the space around your character. Do they use it to 'project' themselves? We often refer to people as being "bigger than life" and that's down to how they use their personal space. It's their gestures (see later) quite often, but also the expansion of their body.
Tip: Watch people. Ignore the obvious details (face, clothes, voice etc) and focus on what they do with their bodies. Game shows are good sources; they contain anxiety and tension and people react differently to this phenomenon. When you're out and about, watch how body language changes when a person meets others - friends or a stranger in the street. What do they do with their shoulders? With their hands? Their head? The way they stand? How upright are they?
Not to be confused with body language, this is all about the way someone moves. I'm not just talking about the way they walk either - though that is a big part of this section. As this gif shows, our bodies dictate a wealth of opportunity to individualise a person. Injuries, age, infirmities are all factors to use here - they need a backstory too!
The Walk: The length of the stride, the speed, the gait, the purpose - these factors tell us a lot about the person and what they're doing at that moment. Walking is an action, it must have purpose. What is that purpose and how best to show it? Uncertainty requires hesitant, slower steps. Dynamism quickens the pace, extends the stride, strengthens the gait. Don't forget to look at what the rest of the body is doing - walking doesn't just affect the legs. It's the shoulders, arms, waist and head too. It's worth thinking about how to define a walk: does the character stroll, promenade, mince, march, totter, toddle?
Mannerisms: This is where you can include a limp, a walking stick as support or a stoicism which displays a tolerance to the pain incurred. It's the affectations displayed with other body parts - what the hands do while walking. 'Props' can enhance a mannerism; a hat, an umbrella, a bag, a sword on the hip etc. To return to the synonyms mentioned earlier - how are they affected by the mannerisms? If someone is tottering it may be down to age but also infirmity. Do they need a walking stick or an empty bottle of whiskey in one hand?
Tip: Remember walking is a dynamic activity so characterisation is seen best through actions. Watch how people walk but look at what their entire body is doing too. Identify the speed, mobility and grace of the actions. Notice also any 'props' are used. And don't overlook mannerisms, they are always highly personal and offer the means to establish accentricities.
A gesture is movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We often rely on certain gestures quite regularly to communicate, they help define a character in this way.
People who gesture frequently are those who understand their bodies are a communication device. It is a sign of overt confidence quite often too. Shy people will gesture less. It comes back to my point in Body Language about personal space. Gestures use that space. The temptation is to use lots of gestures but avoid doing this. Pick on one or two gestures that define your character and use them occasionally, at key moments. They should be short-hand methods of communication your readers will recognise. They can lead to humour and help readers engage with the character. Look at the woman in the gif - imagine her reacting this way each time she says something offensive. Would you be quite so angry with her then? What about an eye roll? It shows impatience and irritation, it can define a relationship without ever saying anymore.
Tip: Don't assume gestures are limited to hands. In fact, these can be cliched. I prefer to think of gestures that use the body and the space around it. Again, observation will provide you with examples to record for later use. Watch those people who gesture a lot. Notice how their gestures will vary according to who they're with. Gesture tells you a lot about a relationship and the status within it. Gestures are often sub-conscious forms of communication! The gesturer may not realise how much they are giving way!
There are 42 individial muscles in the face. We use them to communicate in obvious and subtle ways.
You can glower, scowl, grimace and glare to convey unhappiness or resentment. You can beam, smirk, glow and simper to show happiness or satisfaction. You can leer, sneer and ogle too. The thing is, all of these need the face to do different things. Actors need to select the expressions used so they fit the moment, accurately. Again, as characters, we tend to use a repertoire of the same expressions. Decide which ones your character uses (and why?). There is a danger otherwise. It comes in the form of 'gurning'. ('Pulling a grotesque or bizarre facial expression.') It happens when an actor doesn't control their face, they react without enough thought to pull a face with too many things happening all at once.
The Eyes: The most expressive part of the face because so many muscles are centred around them. Eyelids and eyebrows do a lot of the work. But it's also about the intensity of 'the look' too. The saying that 'eyes are the window to the soul' is true in this context. They tell us a lot about what someone is feeling AND thinking (they are not the same!) By this I mean, the rest of the face may transmit one message, the eyes something else. I use the eyes a lot in my writing for this reason. They can show (not tell!) a truth which may otherwise be hidden. They can also provide a succinct means to convey an emotion or reaction without going into lengthy detail. (Editors will love you for this!)
The Mouth: The next location for individual muscles to create shapes that convey character. It's not just the shape of the mouth, its what lips are doing too. Don't overlook the jaw. When the jaw is set in certain ways it forces the lower half of the face to behave in certain ways, useful when showing anger, determination. Biting a lip, a trembling lip shows anxiety. Don't forget what the tongue might do. Such as how it sticks out between the lips when someone is concentrating hard. I'd remind you of the back of the mouth and how it reacts as well. Tension can make a throat dry. This leads to efforts to swallow, to run the tongue along the front teeth. All these things are signs we understand as readers. Rather than tell us someone is nervous, let their mouth show us instead.
The Head: We position our head in different places, depending on what we're doing. When people are listening to another person and concentrating, they might tilt their head to one side. They might frown too. Scepticism might take the form of tilting the head forward so the eyes are lowered to scan the other person's face, it's not an act of disagreement but a suggestion of it. The head is mobile, don't forget this. And remember how it sits on the shoulders, that connection has options too.
Tip: I'm sure you read your work through aloud. I do that so I can hear my characters speak. It's worth doing this in front of a mirror. What are you doing when you deliver certain lines of dialogue? Or when you describe a person's emotional reaction to an event? Can you use those expressions in your story?
"The sound produced in a person's larynx and uttered through the mouth." Such a simple description for the most complex form of characterisation! Voices do so much work to define a character. I used to use a montage of performances of actors delivering Hamlet's To Be or Not To Be soliloquy to get across this idea. Let's look at the things the voice can do.
Pitch: "the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it; the degree of highness or lowness of a tone." Pitch can be altered consciously - lowering to a growl when making a threat. Or unconsciously, raising pitch as a result of nervous tension. It can be a shout and whisper and all points in between. Pitch is a direct indicator of emotional states of mind as well as relationship indicators.
Tone or Timbre: "the force of the sound as it's delivered". The force of air through the larynix can make the voice do different things. Another sign of emotion. But this quality can often define a character, if their voice has a deep, resonant tone, or its like 'melted chocolate' or a brittle quality.
Accent: "a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch" - can define a character by their background, education, culture and social class. Some writers like to capture this delivery in the way they write dialogue (DH Lawrence wanted his Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire voice to be heard). Alternatively, you can capture an accent with the use of key words or phraseology. For world building in fantasy, it can be subtle means to define social class or other forms of distinction.
Delivery: "how dialogue is spoken to others" - the way we speak to others will vary. It's a good way to define relationships. Delivery is affected by the same things as 'accent'. High status roles may speak in clipped tones, short sentences or instructions, in a firm pitch. Nervous delivery may involve hesitancy, even stammering in extreme cases, a higher pitch that normal. The syntax of the sentence structure can vary, placing emphasis on a particular word. This can be achieve by using the ellipse before the word is ... spoken. This is a subtle methodology, again it shows more than it tells. Individualise your deliveries.
Tip: Listen to people speak but don't look at them. Or record an extract of TV then watch it with the sound turned off. Watch what the actors do. Then turn the sound on but turn away so you can't see the screen an listen only to their voice. How do they marry together? Finally, read your material aloud. Listen carefully to your rhythms, tones and delivery.
I hope I've shown how characterisations can vary and provide the writer with a wealth of choices. However, that diversity of choice presents a danger. If an actor isn't careful and they don't analyse their characterisation properly, they lose consistency. This confuses the audience. They may use one set of gestures, walk a particular way then, at another point, do something very different. Consistency is key. Readers will picture the character in their head, they will see them walking into the room, registering the facial expression and how they react when encountering others. The greater this definition, the more likely they will engage. But these pictures are only formed with consistent messages that are shown (not told) in their characterisation. It means:
Julie sighs and rolls her eyes every time David apologies to her. She'll flex her shoulders, smile and tell him not worry in a tone that suggests extreme weariness.
Roger's arrogance appears in his swagger, his wide stance with hips thrust forward. His grin exudes charm, his eyes twinkle with the promise of excitement.
I'm not suggesting this is how you write about these characters. Instead, I'd record something like this in my notes so I can keep checking back to guarantee I'm presenting a consistent portrayal. I'd probably go on to note how Julie and Roger behave with different people in the story too - giving them more depth but still checking for that all-important consistency.
I hope this acting approach to characterisation helps. As always, I'd love to hear your reactions, either in the comments or on social media.