Thursday, May 08, 2008


You've perhaps heard that one way to connect with readers is to use universal emotions that everyone experiences, such as happiness, sadness, grief, anger, and anticipation.

As writers, we can also use universal facial or body expressions and gestures to help readers connect with our characters. A smile is a sign of welcome, a growling dog means danger, flipping someone off means -- well, most people know what that means. Or do they?

I believe it was Paty who asked for English words her character from another country could "mangle" that would add a touch of humor. And I got to thinking how writers could help define a character by doing this with gestures or facial/body expressions in addition to just the spoken word.

Of course one of my examples involves a dog. :) A growling dog generally is giving a warning that you're treading in dangerous territory, and a dog with a wagging tail is considered friendly. However, one of my dogs wags his tail when he growls. This message seems contradictory, but there's a reason. When he was a puppy, we scolded him for growling at us. He wagged his tail to apologize and I made an off-hand comment that he'd better be wagging that tail if he was going to growl. He's now twelve years old and still wags his tail when he growls -- and looks at me to see if that's alright!

The gesture of flipping someone off generally is done in anger. However, it reminds me of a joke about a grandmother who didn't know what the gesture meant. She was dawdling through traffic, waiting until the stoplight turned yellow to go through intersections so other drivers had to wait and wait and wait. As the joke goes, someone flipped her off. Thinking that must be some new way to say "hello," the grandmother returned the one-finger wave. She got such a rousing response that she continued her meandering through downtown traffic, wreaking havoc and offering a one-finger wave in greeting and in response to blaring horns.

Smiles can also convey different messages. A smile can be broad and welcoming, mischievous, menacing or hiding what a person really feels. The character could give one message on the outside and keep their contradictory thoughts bottled inside. This can help a writer dig deeper into the character. What kind of person would do this and why? Perhaps a celebrity or public person who is always expected to be "on" or is in the camera's eye all the time. What if that person was "caught" having a bad day. What would their reaction be? (Is this where supermarket tabloids get their photos and those wild headlines?) Or a young woman who was eager to please keeps smiling at others even though her resentment of being used or victimized builds and builds inside until she flips out and becomes the smiling mass murderer.

OK, these may be extreme examples that I've not actually used in any story so far. However, as I'm starting to plot a series of books, I'm thinking of different ways to define those characters. How about you? Have you used a different take on "universal" gestures or expressions to give a character endearing -- or not so endearing -- flaws or quirks? Or do you stick with more traditional gestures such as a furrowed brow as a sign of worry?


Paty Jager said...

Great blog, Genene!

This kind builds on the topic I'm giving at this month's meeting.
In my opinion how you 'present' a character to other characters and the reader tells a lot about them.

I think the biting of the lip has been overdone in characters to show they are worried. But I have used it, as well as wringing hands, picking at the clothing, and pushing a hand through the hair can mean worried or frustrated. there are so many gestures that can be done to 'show' the character.

But I've not thought about using "wrong' gestures. Well, I have had an occasional character be happy on the outside while they weren't on the inside, on in the case of OIP the heroine is standoffish with the hero when she really wants to run into his arms.

Great way to get my brain working this morning! Can't wait to see what others have to say.

Genene Valleau said...

Hey, Paty! Glad we'll hear more about this at our meeting in a couple weeks.

I have also used the "traditional" wringing of hands, etc. to show the emotions of characters. But at the editing phase, these usually strike me as overused, as you said, and I end up changing some of them.

My heroine in SONGS OF THE HEART nibbles her thumb when she's nervous. (Didn't want her chewing her fingernails!) But I had a comment from a critique partner that they noticed I seemed to use that a lot. So during the editing phase, I took some of those out. It's finding that balance between endearingly quirky and annoying.

I'll be taking notes at your presentation at our May meeting!

Lori Barber said...

Genene, Great blog and a great reminder to use unexpected tells to show our characters moods, apprehensions, fears, joys, etc. I know people who smile when they're nervous. Sometimes this looks like an emission of guilt but in reality it's their way of handling the situation.

Thanks for reminding us there are many ways to show emotion in our characters without using their voice.

Genene Valleau said...

Hi, Lori!

Thanks for taking the time out of your remodeling to comment. Having to go through all the dust and hassle again for one missed spot is definitely commitment! But I'll bet your floors are beautiful!

We can thank Paty for getting me thinking about this topic. And wouldn't it be interesting to list all the different "stuff" a smile could mean? :)

Hope your remodeling is just about done!

Karen Duvall said...

Fun topic, Genene. Expressions and attitudes are so fun to play to describe and develop character. What I love is expressing how the viewpoint character interprets the actions or expressions of another character. Is she right or wrong? Kind of adds to the tension, depending on the situation.

My villain has a great poker face, so my heroine is never quite sure how he's going to react. So she's had to learn to be observant and interpret the tightness around his eyes, his slightly flared nostrils, the flexing muscle in his jaw.

The hero will frown and smile at the same time, making him look devilish and very sexy. 8^)

My heroine has a hard time lying unless she pretends to believe the lie. To cover it up, she'll put on an angry mask so as not to give herself away. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work.

Genene Valleau said...

Great ideas, Karen!

Seeing expressions through the eyes of one of the other characters can definitely add another dimension. I love your examples, which have set me off with a bunch of new possibilities as I'm plotting and planning!


Elisabeth Naughton said...

Great blog, Genene!

I agree, I think some of these tells are overdone in fiction, like the biting lip and wringing hands. I know I've done the first, not sure about the second.

I had an overly sweaty heroine (when she was stressed) who would wipe her hand down her hip a lot. Got distracting. And while this isn't gesture related but uses words, the hero in my first release (who is Puerto Rican) lapses into Spanish whenever he's frustrated or feeling sexy. Since both are generally aimed at the heroine, she picks up on this quirk rather quickly. ;)

And Karen...LOL...I love your hero frowning and smiling at the same time (sexy!). But your villain....whenever I read about nostrils flaring in any book I get this visual in my head of Speedy Gonzalez in the middle of a bull fighting ring with a monster bull, with flaring nostrils and a nose ring pawing at the ground getting ready to charge. I don't know why! LOLOLOL. But that always pops into my head. (I know...I'm sick!)

Genene Valleau said...

Hi, Eli!

I really like the hero lapsing into a different language at certain times. That shows emotion as well as defining his cultural background -- does double duty!

Now you've planted a visual for flaring nostrils! Perhaps if only one nostril flared ... never mind, better not go down that path. :)