Hello all! Today you won’t be hearing much from me, because my good friend and fellow writer, Atlas Easton, agreed to write a guest post for me! Yay!!! (Consider my bacon saved.) The post is actually the topic Atlas presented at one of our writing meetings. (Containing Words and Weirdos. Yes, I know we’re amazing at naming things.) So after a huge THANK YOU to Atlas, let’s jump into our topic.
As all readers (and writers) should know, the Point Of View character is the easiest to learn about. Audiences have an inlet into his mind unlike any other character in the story. The reader has access to thoughts, inner emotions and even background and political/religious status. Non-POV characters, however, are much harder to get to know as a reader, and we as writers build upon the knowledge of these characters with expression.
Now before I get ahead of myself, let me explain something. Personality and expression are two very different things. Personality determines the emotional and physical reaction of a character. Personality says whether they get mad or not in a specific situation, or whether they decide to accept a dangerous quest or not. Personality determines the emotional and physical reaction of a character; expression is the execution of those reactions.
There are two main forms of expression: physical and vocal. I’m not going to cover the latter, but you can easily find resources on this slightly-more straightforward subject. Vocal expression directly relates to the social and cultural atmosphere that the character is immersed in prior to the events of your story, so it’s overall a little easier to pin down and master.
The other side of character expression is physical expression, which, unlike the vocal expression, directly relates to personality. It’s very important to nail down your character’s personality before you start forging your modes of expression, so it doesn’t contradict the character’s personality once everything is finished and you’re ready to start writing.
Before we get into our main subject, let me debunk something. There is no such thing as an unreadable character—or at the very least, there shouldn’t be. It’s acceptable and common to have a stoic character, but chances are he or she will still be able to express emotion and reaction through expression. Only when your character is consciously trained to hide these signs will they be less detectable by a POV character. And note that I said ‘less.’ If something isn’t getting through, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
There are two basic types of physical expression: wide-range expression, and short-range expression. The main thing that sets these two sets apart is the overall personality of your character. Wide-range expression works best with a character who is outgoing, bold, louder, more physical, etc. Short range is compatible with softer, meeker, introverted, green characters, however that plays out in your OC.
Before we get into the sets themselves, there’s a couple subsets you should take into account before you dive into shaping your character’s expression. All four of the following subsets should be used evenly with each character to convey a realistic, well-rounded and natural expression.
Quirks. These are the casual things they do when they’re bored, distracted. Something they’re things they don’t even realize they’re doing, or they don’t realize it sets them apart from other people. They think it’s normal. Examples: scribbling notes on themselves, rubbing a scar, snapping fingers, clicking their tongue.
Nervous Habits. What do you do when you’re nervous? Nervous habits are the movements and habits that take control when you get antsy. Examples: biting nails/lips, sucking on their cheeks, drumming on objects or themselves, gritting their teeth
Sidenote: For the two listed above, you might say, “oh, well, my character does the same thing for both instances.” That may be a problem eventually. The main difference between the quirks and the nervous habits? Well, quirks are used in casual, lazy, easy situations, and nervous habits are not. Quirks are almost always harmless. If your character is happy-go-lucky and feeling great, are they going to sit there and grind their teeth? Or pinch their own skin until they leave a red mark? No. They’ll click their tongue, snap their fingers, something less intense. The only exception to this is that nervous habits can also display themselves when the character is thinking, focused or concentrating, even if the situation isn’t necessarily ‘bad.’
Casual Body Language – everyday movement, how they move. Examples, Do they talk with their hands? Eyebrows? Talk fast or slow?
Suppressed Body Language – basic emotions exhibited through body language, the entire body. Examples, bobbing, twitching, pacing, etc
I’m not going to go into great detail of what the different types of expression are, because in my experience, you really have to do that individually as it relates to your OC’s and their role in the story. I am however going to go a little deeper with you and explore how to use expression so it works in perfect sync with your characters.
During CWW meetings (CWW being the writing club I lead with Gail), we have talked multiple times about how every single sentence in your story has to have a reason. If there isn’t a definite meaning or some kind of significance within the plot, axe it. Expression is one of the greatest ways to make sure every word counts when it comes to a non-POV character. Say you have a character whose nervous, so he’s pacing because he’s nervous. He’s walking quickly, drumming on things as he walks past, His head;s down, his jaw is set, he’s thinking… this openly conveys his internal personality. Only by the way he moves and by what he does, the reader knows he wants to be active in the problem, he wants to move, be involved, do something about it. But there’s another part of him that feels useless, powerless. This is an example of how wide-range expression works.
You cannot, however, tack wide range expression on a quieter character. Sure, they’re “nervous” too—perhaps because of the same exact thing, and probably to the same extent. But if they want to shrink away from what’s going on, they’re going to be sitting on the couch, their feet tucked in, eyes jerking around and blinking constantly, fingers rubbing their clothes… you could just say “they were nervous” and that would be completely, one hundred percent correct. The nervousness they are feeling in this situation is their personality talking. If they had a different personality, they might not be nervous in this situation at all. But it is your expression that draws the breakdown of their respective personalities onto the page.
So. For wide range expression, it is literally ‘wider’. The character is louder, and their reactions are larger. Their basic physical movements are sporadic, farther out from their body.
Short range is closer to home; softer voice, not as easily riled, they keep their limbs tucked closer to their bodies. If your OC is introverted and shy, they’re not going to be gesturing all the way out in the middle of nowhere when surrounded by total strangers.
It’s always nice to have resources to pull from, but you always have to be careful. One of my favorite writing books is the Emotion Thesaurus, written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. For example, let’s say one of my characters is displaying impatience in a scene. I pull out my Emotion Thesaurus and look up ‘impatience’. And the first couple entries I find are “folding the arms” and “scowling.” And I go, perfect. These are perfect. But if I’m assigning them to a meek character who doesn’t like to be outspoken or contradictory…. That’s not good. Yes, folding your arms and scowling are both very accurate expressions for the emotion “impatience.” Just maybe not for your specific character.
Above all, practice, practice, practice! The more fleshed out your character’s personalities are, the easier it will be to hammer out expression like a pro. Have fun!