Friday, July 22, 2016

Showing Character Reaction

It’s pretty tricky when writing character body language and facial expression to avoid being repetitive. As an editor I see a lot of authors struggling with this. I read an abundance of eye rolling, shrugging and lip biting and numerous times by different characters in the same manuscript. Of course, these are absolutely fine to use because they show and don’t tell.

·        Eye rolling perfectly demonstrates that ‘Urgh, this is sooooo embarrassing’ reaction.

·        Shrugging is a clear ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Whatever’ response.

·        Lip biting shows a ‘How am I going to get out of this?’ concern.

So, yeah, use them, but don't over-use them. It figures that the more extreme emotion – like fear, delight, shock – the easier to put a reaction into words. But, what about the more subtle reactions? Like intimidated or offended. Those that need ultra fine detail to let the reader know precisely what the character is feeling.

The best sure-fire way to help is to grab yourself a mirror...



And be the characters in the scene you’re writing!

Or, if you are just too embarrassed to behave in this manner or are defunct of human emotion, then analyse the actors in a movie or TV show (the lower budget and tackier they are the more helpful they can be because the actors are nearly always over-acting) or just look up some GIFs/pictures on the internet.

Like here...

There is a fine line between showing intimidation and fear. Because even though they are different, they definitely stem from the same receptor.

·        There could be cowering, instantly making their body smaller, rolling in on themselves.

·        The arms come in, the body turns away, the face the same, but the eyes might stay with the intimidator; maybe darting away but coming back to check where the person is, what they are doing and saying.

·        The knees might bend, backward steps are taken, even a seat.

·        If another person is there they may move closer to them, try to blend into their body, or just touch them in some way, grab their hand for protection.

·        Fidgeting, or perhaps the opposite, they stay statue-still.

And here...


So this reaction has a number of tell tale signs and can often depend on the exact situation in which the character is offended. Like, for example, if it’s by their boss and they have to maintain ‘face’ in front of their colleagues isn't the same as when it occurs on a drunken night out with mates.

Here are a few possibilities:

·        An immediate dip of the eyebrows to create a slight frown.

·        The head could come forward just slightly like a tortoise’s head pops out its shell, but then it goes back. Or the chin comes up as if the person’s absorbing the verbal punch there. Or maybe the opposite and the head is driven back.

·        The eyes could get a little wider, maybe even the eyebrows pop up then back down in disbelief as the person moves their head to the side so they can’t be seen.

·        The mouth might open just slightly as a small intake of breath occurs. Nasty words want to come out, but it might not be the right time to react; the person might need to swallow their thoughts and move on. Or they might just grit their teeth, thin out their lips.

Or, you know, they might just do this...

It's clear when you start writing reaction and from these options that every character and situation you as a writer put them in is going to be unique, so how you convey visible reaction is going to vary tremendously. Giving your character habits they fall back on when feeling certain emotions is a great help. But also, to accompany the physical, external movement, as shown above, the best weapon you have to get a character’s true emotion across to the reader is their mind. Access your character’s thoughts so the reader can hear exactly what’s being felt and how it’s being processed.


‘John strides toward me, his mouth curled into a smile only I can see. I turn my body away and fold my arms. I try to keep eye contact but I can’t. His penetrating stare is boring deep, right into my grey matter. I lower my head and study some old breadcrumbs from my sandwich on the tiled floor. I would give anything not to be here right now.’


‘My hand freezes mid-restyle, my fine hair tickling my skin. Did he really just say that? How dare he? My heart is thumping like horse hooves on turf; a tingle moves up my neck as I grit my teeth. I finish my plait and swallow down my reaction. I’ll get him back. Not here, not when he’s expecting it.’

Have fun!

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