Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Non-Verbal Communication: Gestures

This morning thing has reached ridiculous levels. I was up pretty late last night because we went out for frozen yogurt after ballet, then I watched the season finale of NCIS after taking a shower when I got home, then I finished reading a book. And I still came wide awake at 6:40. So far this morning, I've managed to watch last night's NCIS: LA, read all my usual e-mail/Internet stuff, look up orthopedists on my insurance plan (my ballet teacher told me that I'd better get that shoulder looked at), go by the doctor's office to make an appointment and fill out paperwork, pick up a new box of contact lenses and buy my dad's birthday present. I got an appointment for this afternoon, so I can't nap, which means I will likely yawn my way through choir and won't get much writing done. But at least I may have a start on knowing what's wrong with my shoulder.

And now it's writing post time. I've been talking about the various ways you can use nonverbal communication in developing characters. The way people use personal space tells you a lot about them and their relationships, and the ways people sit, stand, walk and sleep can also add dimension and realness to characters. People seldom sit or stand totally still, and the little movements, gestures and habits can make characters more vivid, tell a lot about them or show how they've changed.

If you watch people you know well, you'll probably notice that they generally have some kind of mannerisms, habitual gestures or tics -- things like clicking a ballpoint pen, cracking knuckles, twirling hair, inspecting fingernails, chewing fingernails, adjusting a watch or piece of jewelry, etc. These things may or may not have deeper meaning, and the deeper meaning can vary. For instance, a man may touch, rub or move around his wedding ring. That could be taken to mean that he's uncomfortable with the marriage and may be thinking of what it would be like to get rid of that ring, or it could be a kind of self-soothing gesture if his marriage is a source of comfort and strength, so that touching his ring in tense moments reminds him of his marriage and encourages him. The gestures can also reflect the character's background. I've found that people who participated in high school debate tend to have this habit of flipping pens around their fingers. I can generally tell when I go to a meeting which people were debators, just by what they do with their pens when they get bored in the meeting. As the author, you can decide what the gestures mean or where they came from and how much of that to share with readers. The gesture may have meaning to you as you have a reason for putting it there, but you don't necessarily have to share that if it isn't important to the story.

These mannerisms or habitual gestures can serve as character "tags" -- ways of differentiating each character so all the characters stick in readers' minds. Those old enough to remember the Fonz on Happy Days will recall how that character had the habitual dual thumbs-up "Aaayyyy" gesture and his way of whipping a comb out of his back pocket to touch up his already perfect greased-back hair. When that show was on TV, someone could do either of those gestures, and just about anyone would know they were imitating the Fonz.

You don't want to overdo it with the tics, though, unless the whole point of the character is to show a neurotic person loaded with twitches and tics. Pick one or two strong ones, establish them, and then use them sparingly throughout the book when it's appropriate. A mannerism may tie into a particular emotional state or interaction with a particular person (one good trick is to tie the mannerism to interaction with the person you most need to differentiate the character from, and that way, you've got a good distinguishing tag and can use it in the right place). People may be more likely to fall into mannerisms when they're bored or stressed, so using the mannerism in certain moments may be a good clue about the character's emotional state. If you use a tic or habit too much, it will start to get annoying, much in the same way you want to grab that pen away from the person who is unconsciously clicking it over and over again.

When you're deciding on which mannerisms to give your characters, you can start with a mannerism and then reverse engineer to decide where it came from, or you can start with who the character is and what element of his personality you most want to explore or demonstrate, and then think of a mannerism that illustrates that. People watching is a great way to develop a catalog of mannerisms so you can move beyond the standard ones. Keep a list and add to it when you notice something interesting. This is another time when watching actors in a role is a good exercise, because actors will usually find mannerisms that fit their characters, so they're consciously creating these things the way writers do, and they have to be careful to use these gestures only when necessary -- in about the same way you would in a novel.

1 comment:

Chicory said...

Nice post. I'm trying to write a character right now who spends a lot of time trying not to express her emotions, but when she's upset or needs to think she'll play a certain song on the hammered dulcimer.