Saturday, November 6, 2010

Writing - Character Development - Body Language and Show Don't Tell - Part Three

One of the things I love about writing these blogs is that I learn as much as I share. My approach is rather simple at times, but developing real life characters is as simple as watching those around you or a good TV show or movie. Profiling – the physical looks of your character, as well as their little ticks and quirks, and then adding the internal mental/emotional baggage to their persona.

Kentucky has a comedian that has always used real life episodes for his comedy. He can truly entertain you for hours as real life is often funnier than fiction. Of course, if we’re lucky few of us know serial killers or the “bad” guys/gals we write about. Or perhaps we do, and once again if we’re lucky we don’t become a part of their agenda.

I was watching Criminal Minds last night. It was an old show, and one I’ve seen before. But truthfully I’ve never really seen the killer in the light I saw him last night. The show opens with him in his house and his actions clearly show you in the first few minutes that he’s obsessive compulsive. Perhaps someone unfamiliar with obsessive compulsive order at first glance in the apartment would merely sum him up as a neat freak. But closer examination of his movements, the three turns of the door handle before opening it, the measured number of brushes with the tooth brush, the fanatical placing of items exactly as they were before he picked them up all point to something more than just neatness.

As I’ve been blogging on facial expressions I watched his this time. He has a look of innocence, and possibly a little “book wormish”. Not unattractive, but what some of us older people would have labeled “geekish” in our day. Even though I’d seen this show before I at first saw him as the victim (which if I remember correctly, he was a victim as a child, so perhaps that image wasn’t totally off). He leaves the apartment walking down the street and an older woman drops something as she’s getting into her car. He picks it up and gives it to her. A nice, quiet, helpful young man. And so polite. As I stated, he has a look of innocence, and also a look of skittishness. Not someone you would expect as confrontational.

He approaches a house for sale where he’s greeted by the realtor. This throws me in his character just a little, for this action requires a certain boldness. It’s broad daylight, and anyone could walk into this house at any time. He allows her to see the knife for just a moment before he moves in close, shoving the knife underneath her heart. Here his facial expression is truly a work of art. He closes his eyes, his head tilts back just a fraction, and a look of total satisfaction crosses his face. Perhaps sexual satisfaction, but the one thing you know for sure is something about shoving the knife into this woman relieved some inner need. An inner need so strong it was impossible for him to overcome it.

The woman stumbles away and he asks her in a voice that has just the right amount of innocence and curiosity – “Where are you going?”

He follows her as she stumbles into the living room and sits down on the couch. He isn’t too close, not threatening nor helping. He leans over her and looks into her eyes watching her die. Here once again his face is a painting of curiosity, as if he has no understanding of what he’s done, or the consequences of his actions.

My first thoughts—wow, a perfect killer and one no one would see coming. And even though you fear the character you also have just a little sympathy for him because you realize immediately this isn’t who he wants to be—it simply is what life has made him.

Profiling – your characters must fit your story in age, physical looks and internal emotional/mental baggage and/or needs. Work with them by watching others who have similar “needs”. Start with people you know describing them in ways that would probably surprise them, as well as may surprise you as you look underneath the physical persona. Keep a note pad by your side as you’re watching your favorite movie and profile the characters. Play with it and have fun. The next time you sit down to write I believe you’ll find your characters taking on new life.


  1. Excellent advice. And your example was a great example of creating characters that will sneak up on your reader, yet when the reader thinks back, they feel they should have seen it coming.