Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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

Having written yesterday's blog related to "anger" and using body language to show don't tell, I wanted to expound just a little more on facial expressions. Facial expressions, especially the eyes, create the most obvious and immediate cues to the formation of impressions related to that person's emotional feelings and/or mental thoughts.

And as stated earlier you have to give your readers some reason to care enough about your character to want to follow them all the way to the end of the book. Of course you need a good story as well as a great character. It isn't all about looks. Take a moment for introspection. Haven't you met a person that although physically attractive there was something about them that put you off? Something you just couldn't bring yourself to like? Perhaps it was their eyes, or a fake smile. Something about their general aura that made you want to put distance between yourself and them. And no matter how much you tried to like that person you just couldn't. You really just didn't care. In writing this isn't always a bad thing. If you create a character that readers dislike enough they may follow the story just in hopes this particular person gets what's coming to them.

On the opposite of that, haven't you met someone at some time that although perhaps not physically attractive you immediately felt drawn to them. Someone that you wanted to get closer to, get to know better?

It takes the whole package to create a believable, likeable or dislikeable character. I don't want to read a story about a handsome hulk with a wonderful physique. He has to have redeeming qualities also. Or vice versa, a beautiful woman who has no personality isn't going to interest me.

In the male category I often think of Jason Statham. He isn't the most handsome man I've seen in the movies, but he immediately drew me in. And it was his face that drew me in. That tinge of loneliness in his eyes. The tightened jaw that has a certain quality of gentleness to it. The desire to see him happy. Make him smile. I loved the first Transporter movie, although the others weren't that great in my opinion. What made me follow those movies was Jason Statham.

So what can faces tells us? We've already discussed anger, so let's discuss some other emotions.


Cold sweat; pale face; dry mouth; refusing to meet the other person's eyes; damp eyes and trembling lips. Voice tremors, rapid pulse and/or heartbeat; tension in muscles; holding breath or ragged breaths.


General drooping of the body, trembling lips, tears, eyelids droop and corners of lips generally pull down.


Raised eyebrows, widening of eyes, open mouth, the upper eyelids and brows rise and the jaw drops open.


The corners of the mouth life in a smile, eyelids tighten and the cheeks rise. A genuine smile goes all the way to the eyes causing a certain lighting up of the eyes or twinkle in the eyes.

As you can easily see some facial expressions can be attributed to more than one emotion, and that's why it's important to designate your character's reactions in ways that your reader knows your character as well as you do. For example trembling lips can be attributed to both fear and sadness.

Some great descriptive sentences that at least for me, give you much more than just words.

Dean Koontz in One Door Away From Heaven: Her aunt, from whom fate had stolen everything except a reliable sense of humor . . .

This is Micky thinking as she sunbathes. What we get from this is a general internal description of her aunt. A person that although life has been cruel enough to leave poor still has the ability to laugh at her own problems. We get an internal look at the aunt, and at least for me she was someone I wanted to meet. Someone I wanted to know more about. There's no physical description and yet in my mind I could see her as I imagined her to be. And I could relate her to my own aunt or grandmother.

She wore her beauty with humility, but more impressively she kept her pedigree in her purse and never flashed it. . . .

A description by Noah of the Congressman's wife in Chapter 6. With a very few words, Mr. Koontz, has given us a beautiful woman whom we know to be wealthy, and of some importance, and most likely born into that importance. However, we can forgive her all of that as it apparently means nothing to her. We're ready to give her a chance to see if we can like her.

Providing for Laura was the reason that he worked, the reason that he lived in a low-rent apartment, drove a rustbucket, never traveled, and bought his clothes at warehouse-clubs. Providing for Laura was, in fact, the reason that he lived at all.

Noah again on page 129. This passage truly gives you insight into Noah's character, his ability to love someone more than himself, and sacrifice his own life to provide a life for them. It also hints at perhaps something we don't quite know yet - why does he feel so guilty, and what happened to Laura. All answers that we can only get by continuing to read.

You may wonder why I chose Dean Koontz for the example. Well, the answer to that is quite simple--I find him the master of using words in ways that describe far more than just scenery and physical attributes. Even if you're not a Koontz fan, I would urge every writer to read his work at some point. You never want to plagiarize another writer's work, but you can learn. Learn to use to words not just as flat descriptions, but in ways to bring your characters to life. Make them real people with real emotional feelings. Turn them into someone your readers want to follow wherever they go and whatever they do.

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