Tuesday, May 25, 2010

20 Character Worksheet Part 4: Is Your Character Walking & Talking?

If you've been working through the character worksheet and following this series of posts, you now have novel-worthy, essential main characters, that epitomize specific characteristics enough to have legs. Now it's time to get those characters walking, talking, and moving with mannerisms that make them leap off the page. How? By showing your characters instead of telling the reader about them, and that requires knowing what makes them walk and talk differently than other characters.

Talking Body Language Scene by Scene

When you talk to someone face-to-face, your mind processes more than what they say. Subconsciously, you register the way her voice sounds, the way her eyes meet yours, the expression on her face, the way she stands, the gestures she makes, even the distance she likes to keep between her and other people. All of these things together put her words in context and tell you whether to like her, respect her, mistrust her or fear her.

Ideally as you are writing a scene in your work of fiction, you want to be able to visualize that scene. You want your reader to be able to:
  • See the specific location and the furnishings and objects in it, a macro view.
  • Zoom in on one or two unique details, an oddly painted chair, a wall color, a particular painting, a collectible, a micro view. 
  • Connect their visualization of the macro and micro view to a better understanding of one or more of your characters. A specific detail is there because one of your characters put it there or chose the location because of it. What does that say about your character?
Now, as you populate your setting, you have things for your characters to interact with. They don't just stand in empty space and talk to each other. Close your eyes and picture the scene. Play the action in your head like a television scene on fast forward.What else are they doing?
  • What actions do they interrupt as they turn to each other and speak?
  • How do they navigate around the setting?
  • What actions do you see that would tell the story even if you didn't have any dialogue?
Zoom in even further. Focus on each character individually.
  • How does that character stand and move that's different from every other character?
  • How does that make other characters react to her?
  • Does she have a specific gesture she makes frequently? When does she make it? What triggers it?
  • Is she aware she is making that gesture?
  • Does she like the gesture? Does it embarrass her?
  • Do other characters like it? Dislike it?
This is acting 101. As an exercise, try studying several films starring your favorite actor. Pick an actor who doesn't play the same character in every film, and look at the way he stands, the way he walks, all the different things that make him a different person from one film to the next. Some actors are so good, you could see them dressed alike from the back and still identify the character they portray. What did they do to make the character that distinctive?

That's what you need to put in your book. 
Quirks & Mannerisms

The mannerisms section of the character worksheet contains 108 quirks and mannerisms to help you get started. But it's just a jumping off point. Hopefully, by the time you even get to that section, you will know enough about your character to have a clear picture in your head.
  • Is she a confident character who stands with her shoulders back and her head high?
  • Is she a go-getter who leads with her chin?
  • Does she slouch because she lacks confidence or was bullied as a child?
  • Does she have ADHD or too much nervous energy that translates into a constantly jiggling foot.
  • Does she suck her hair because that's more socially acceptable than sucking your thumb?
  • Is she curious and tactile, constantly touching something?
  • Does she hug herself because she's the only person who ever gave her any reassurance?
Speaking Frankly

We all know that dialogue is spoken aloud, right? I take that literally. If I can't read my dialogue out loud and have it sound natural, I'm not doing my job as a writer. But even more than that, every dialogue sequence in the book has to:
  • Identify who is speaking even if I take out the dialogue tags.
  • Move the story forward by changing something: an outcome, an opinion, a relationship.
  • Contain an underlying tension between the characters over and above the main outcome above. One character wants something. Another character wants something else. Who is going to get what they want?
  • Reveal more about each character than we knew before.
Dialogue is critical. To create great dialogue, take a page from a screenplay. The dialogue sings because it has to. In a screenplay, there are no page-long inner musings about what your character is going to do or why he is going to do it. There is only what he says and how he says it. The dialogue is rich with word choices, habits, double meanings, tension, sparkle. That's what you have to strive for.

To get there, think about what verbal habits your character has picked up and what those say about that character.
  • Does she have a specific word she uses frequently?
  • When does she use that word?
  • How does her word choice affect other characters? What does it make others think or feel?
  • What kind of nicknames or terms of endearment does she give to other characters?  What does that say about her?
  • Does she have a specific way of phrasing something?
  • Does she speak fast or slow?
  • How does her mood affect the pace of her speech? The timbre, pitch or tone of her voice?
  • What does her speech say about where she's from? Is that due to pronunciation? To word choice?
The character worksheet contains 64 words, phrases, or potential dialogue habits that can help you jump start your thought process. These are common--often too common to work really well--but they are distinctive enough that if you have one character who uses them, you probably should take time to do a word search to ensure none of your other characters uses them.

Give each of your characters something unique to say. Don't overuse it, but don't miss the opportunity to let your character speak with distinction.

Happy visualizing,


For further reading:

The Character Worksheet Series
Download the Character Worksheet
Gender Differences: Female Body Language
Gender Differences: Male Body Language
Using Body Language to Create Believable Characters
Emotional Body Language
Angela Ackerman's Emotion Thesaurus
Flesh Out Your Writing with Body Language
Pick a Personality: Keirsey Temperaments (including speech patterns)
Pick a Personality Style: People Styles (including speech patterns)
Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome
Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts Part 1
Un-Clone Your Characters Using Distinctive Dialogue

What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro
The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease
Writing Dialogue for Scripts: Effective dialogue for film, tv, radio and stage by Rib Davis
Write Great Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
Speaking of Dialogue by Sammie L. Justesen
Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts Part 2


  1. Excellent post Martina. This really gets a person thinking about fleshing out their characters. :)

    The key now is to apply all of what you mentioned today--off to see who's doing what and acting how in my current WIP. :)

  2. I have been loving your Character series, and this post is no exception. I usually have a good handle on body language and expressions during conversations and more general scenes, but what I always have to do is go back in a revision and add in the specific sensory details the characters are focused on at that moment to highlight their state of mind and illustrate another facet of their character. Great tips!

  3. Wow, what a wealth of info' and much to glean from. Thanks! It's like I walked into a writer's conference and tapped into just the class I need...

  4. Hi Rachel, great to see you here!

    And Bluestocking and Kenda, thanks so much for the kind words! I'm kind of sad to see this series end, but I'm leaning toward doing the visual scene staging for next week. I've been wanting to think and research that a little more for a while now.

  5. Great post. It really is all about not only how the character interacts with the setting, but the motivation behind the actions. Each action should reveal the emotion that the character is feeling. This is especially important when they are trying to mislead or hide something through their dialogue--their words say one thing, but their actions clearly show the truth.

    There's a few of these sister-posts I've missed and I'm looking forward to catching up on them. Many thanks for gathering them all here. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  6. Awesome post! I'm much more of a 'character' person than plot (although I know you need both for a story to be successful), so this info is really helpful. And your link list? Crazy good.

  7. Great post. I've really enjoyed this character series. It's something I struggle with. I have a tendency to overuse those words characters use so have to watch.

  8. Seriously! Just when I think you can't get any more awesome - there you go! Sheesh! I love it!!!

  9. Hi Angela, once again, your Emotion Thesaurus rocks. I like the symbolism thesaurus too! Great point about using action to tell the truth when the dialogue lies.

    Hi Cambria!!! So happy to see you here. And Lisa and Natalie, we are only this "awesome" because you push us by leaving great comments like that. Awesome right back at ya!! :-D

  10. genius, AS USUAL. you guys are amazing.

    i don't know how you do it.

    *IN AWE*

  11. This post series just keeps getting better and better. Thanks for posting on this subject.

  12. I'm currently in the process of fleshing out my ms with more tidbits of description - these tips are terrific - thanks!

  13. Another amazing post. Thank you so much for taking the time to compile this!

    I'm loving your blog!

  14. Thanks, Tahereh. Very big smile on my face! (Marissa's too, even through the migraine.)

    Virginia, thanks very much. I'm sad to see it end. It's been fun to write.

    And Jemi, I'm glad it looks helpful. Let us know how you do with the description. Hopefully next week's Tuesday post will help too. I'm leaning toward visual scene staging and selective details.


  15. Jackee, you snuck in on me. Thanks! And welcome. Thanks for following!


  16. Thanks for the great post. I can see all the work it took! :)

  17. i thought parts 1,2 and 3 were helpful yet this is the perfect conclusion

  18. Another useful tip for your readers: think about all the memorable people you've met. Deconstruct them (list the qualities that make them unique). Real people are the best springboards for creativity. Art, after all, imitates life. Thank you for sharing your advice ~

  19. I loved this series on character development. Do you have (or are you planning) a similar one on setting? I struggle most with it.

  20. Another useful hint for your viewers: think about all of the remarkable people you might have met. Deconstruct these people (listing the actual characteristics that will make them unique). True people are the best springboards for creativeness. Art work, in fact, mimics lifestyle. We appreciate you revealing your own assistance !



Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)