Fully In Character: From Subconsciousness to Shuffling Feet

I have been critiqued in dozens of workshops.  One occurrence, however, has stuck with me more vividly than others. That Saturday, a few semi-professional players were visiting old friends still in the troupe. After workshop, one of these alumni took me aside. “Nathan,” he said, “you’re playing the character well above the waist, but your legs are still you. You need to remember, that when you play a character, you need to commit your whole body.”

The player’s advice has affected how I show emotions in my prose. Though culturally trained to watch the face, I still unconsciously observe all aspects of body language during normal interactions. I could say, “He scowled with controlled fury,” but if the character is an experienced fighter, his face may have gone suddenly cold or expressionless. Alternatively, I could say that, “as he centered his weight the slight shifting in his feet ceased, and his hands unconsciously flexed.” If both descriptions express the same thought, the more subtle approach would add to the transparency of the prose and possibly to the tension.

Even still, his advice has been difficult for me to implement. As a society, we are trained to control our facial expressions. How many times was I told as a kid, “At least look like you’re enjoying yourself,” or, “Don’t make that face at me”? This point was brought to my attention again, during a drive to San Antonio. In his audiobook, What Every BODY is Saying, Joe Navarro observes that in his experience as an FBI agent, legs and feet have often been the most expressive and honest sign of a person’s feelings during interview. And yet, I was completely ignoring these tells.

The mandate to be completely in character extends beyond simple physicality. I strive for each character to have a unique voice, such that a reader would be able to forgo dialogue tags without losing meaning. However, voice is more than just an accent, quirks of speech, or favorite little phrases that a character picked up. True voice is a gateway into a character’s patterns of thought and experiences.

A strong voice will define how a character interacts with the narrative, especially in first person and in tight third person POVs.  What does the character first notice upon walking into a room?  What is noticed last? How long do they focus on each, and what fails to catch their attention until it is pointed out? Voice is also found in how characters view themselves and their own actions, especially in their justifications.

For me, being fully in character still requires conscious effort. Though as I practice, it becomes more natural and therefore, more transparent. This development as a storyteller started with a piece of advice whose scope I did not fully appreciate. If I’m going to be in character, I need to be fully invested.  In character not only with my entire body, but also in my thoughts and words.


2 Responses

  1. Quincy Allen says:

    Sage advice. I know I struggle with this in my own prose. I too focus on eyes and mouth when it comes to expressions of emotion. Part of my challenge is that I’m a card player… and a pretty good one. I’m not a pro by any stretch, but when you’re at the table you get specific queues from your opponents. First and foremost are the eyes, where they’re looking and what they’re doing. Second is the mouth–whether the lips are pursed or relaxed, if it’s flat or curved. Finally, one examines what an opponent’s hands are doing. You can also draw from whether the player is forward, upright or leaning back. However, those “tells” aren’t really enough for comprehensive prose… and I know it.

    A crossing of legs, the width of one’s stance, motion, position, and even tension all can relate information, and this goes for the entire body.

    I think the key is to step back from the text every now and again and truly visualize the scene from one event to the next. Understand what your characters are doing. And know why they’re doing it. And from there, drop yourself into those shoes and walk around for a bit. When you do that, you’ll know what the character is doing and how he, she, or it will react.

    Good stuff, Nathan!

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Thank you very much Quincy. I can appreciate your approach as well. The value of facial expressions is why this whole practice is difficult for me. We are trained to regard the eyes and face of our conversation partners, so there is a great deal of interpretation that can be drawn from that point. The thing is, as an experienced card player, you have specialized knowledge in how to read those subtleties that not every reader would have. An eye twitch at the right moment may mean a great deal to you, but how do you communicate that to a reader who doesn’t share in your experience? Have you had luck in this in your writing?

      I’m always struggling with balancing subtlety and the message in my own works. On the one hand, you can explain and interpret the motion to your reader through a narrator or the protagonist’s voice, but that seems to loose much of the point when it comes to the non-verbal part of the communication. But, that also allows you deceive and mislead… what a fun game!

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