Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Character Reactions

One of my known problem areas is using too much of the same physical descriptions for reactions*. I know Roni said, possibly during our late-night Twitter discussion on body parts (you missed a really good one if you missed that), recently how this was a particular problem in romance writing. There's a lot of leaning in and out going on, apparently. I tend to use "smile" way too much. "He/she smiled" shows, in my mind, a variety of expressions: a joke, sarcasm, bitterness, sadness....except the reader doesn't know that!

Writing physical description can be repetitive and strangely challenging. There's only so much smiling, leaning, lip curling, and inclining of the head you can do. It would seem as though movies and telly would have it easy in this department, but I say they have it harder.

In writing, you have a much richer world of description: the senses. I think we rely on sight because it's easy, most of us are visual, and let's face it -- it takes some work to come up with an alternative that captures the essence of a character. And if eye-rolling and sighing are cliches, that should tell you something: they're overused. The following work well:

Smell can convey mood or setting in a wonderfully subtle way. Maybe your character detects a hint of lilac when she's scared or upset, or perhaps she associates the smell of clean linen with her most comforting memories. If you've built it correctly, a character's reaction can incorporate smell and serve as a great cue to the reader that the character feels a certain way.

Instead of eye-rolling, smiling, frowning, or brow-raising, maybe your character reaches out to touch another character on the shoulder, or taps his fingers nervously on the table, or his knee bumps against the table in agitation.

This one can be easily overused too, but still has lots to offer. A character can blow air through his lips in frustration, or hear a high-pitched whine like a mosquito when upset. Of course, the character might hear music or reaction as though music is playing, depending on the mood.

Do you use any of these senses for reactions? Can you add anything to the list? What physical description pitfalls do you try to avoid?

*For this week's Thursday 5, I'm going to list my top 5 known writing problems. My own personal list of check points.


Tina Lynn said...

Oh, man, I am so in for it with this. My characters are always doing the same things. It's pathetic.

Simon C. Larter said...

Yes, of course. My reaction to most things you do can be summed up in terms of the senses. Your posts bring to mind the scent of a midden heap in midsummer. They make me clench vise-like fingers around my armrests, and grate on my ears like the squeal of a rusted bicycle chain. But then I smile, because I move on and continue plotting your destruction.

Travener said...

Yeah, this is a real problem. I really tried to figure out other ways of saying that someone was shrugging their shoulders, i.e., showing they didn't know/care. It weren't easy.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

There's an awful lot of sighing going on in my novel. Many many "pauses" when someone's speaking. Not to mention an awful lot of laughing, chuckling, giggling, grinning, and smiling. If it's a dialogue scene, I've experimented a bit with taking these out and just sticking with what people are saying - in some cases I can't get away with it, but in others less is more. If it's not a dialogue scene...trickier. Way trickier.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

This is a tough one, especially when you take the adverb crutch out of your arsenal. I find myself getting hung up on them when writing, so I'm trying to just put the "sighing/eye-rolling/shrugging" placeholder, knowing I will have to come through during revisions and rework it.

DL Hammons said...

I struggle with utilizing the sense of smell because I have none. Really. Never had a sense of smell, so consequently I'm not familiar with living in a world with them. That impacts my writing because I have to force myself to consider smells and I sometimes miss the subtle nuances the description of an odor can bring to a scene.

Jorge said...

I've struggle with these same exact things. Some can only glare, snarl or smile so much before it seems like character grand standing.

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

Yes, I love using those other sensory details -- especially smell.

Do I do it often enough? Nopers.

Thanks for your lovely comments on my excerpt over at Roni's today. Seriously, you were so genuine and kind. World, I heart Sierra Godfrey!

Meredith Rae Morgan said...

My new protagonist has a habit of tapping her pencil eraser on the table during conversations. I'm only in the first draft, so I'm leaving it in as a possible "quirk"..... I'll probably take it out later.

My characters also tend to cock their heads to the side when they want more information. I wish I could figure out another gesture for that one!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks for all your comments today guys.

Tina – You’re not alone, we all do it. Me especially, can’t get away from “smile.”

Nemesis – You are, as usual, a perfect compendium of a disgusting sensibilities.

Trav – Can’t think of anything there either!

Roni – placeholders are good, providing you can go back and find them again!

Jorge – thanks for stopping by and commenting! Snarl is a good one…haven’t used that yet…hmmm…

Amberspice – Thinking you smell like sweetness, always.

Meredith – pencil tapping is very telling. At least, it should be ;)

annerallen said...

Important reminder. I think all writers tend to fall into patterns. Like the Lt. my characters sigh way too much. Ditto laughing. And a beta reader recently pointed out that my hero put his arm around the heroine's shoulders 6 times in one chapter. We need to root out our lazy default phrases and replace them with fresh stuff. Thanks for the suggestions on how to do that.

Christine H said...

I just saw this post, Sierra, as I haven't had too much time this week for surfing the 'net. First of all, I'm amazed by all this intelligent, thoughtful, informative content you have. When do you find time to do it? And, thank you for taking my comments on your first page so graciously. I give my true opinion when asked for it, because I want to receive sincere feedback in return.

Oh my, this post really speaks to me right now in my massive revision process. I definitely use the "smiled" thing a lot, but I also have a lot of people touching each others' shoulders. It's one of those things where in real life, people do it. But how much of it do you want/need to include in writing? Most of the time, I use it to break up dialogue.

I'm looking in published books for these little actions, to see how other writers handle it. Many omit them and just focus on the dialogue.

I think it also depends on the genre. I'm writing fantasy, so there should be less of the intimate details you would find in romance or women's fiction. But I don't want my characters to come across as stiff and wooden, either.

Groan! Why is it that the more I learn about writing, the harder it gets? Shouldn't it get easier at some point?

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks for commenting, Christine. Touching each other's shoulders is another good one. I'll have make a checklist based on the comments from this post!

As to whether it gets easier, I think it does. Once you know you have to watch for these things, you can either flag them or avoid them over time. The challenge never goes away, though -- or it would be easy to write a book. And we all know it isn't!

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.