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.Tags: Sequence 02: Improv and Writing