We’ve been re-watching a show called Numb3rs (that’s not a typo) and one of actors fascinates me. Peter MacNicol turned the role of a professor who’s brilliant but rather foggy from a cliché to fully developed character. I find myself studying the mannerisms of the character. I’m not sure if the actor did this on his own or if the director assisted, but either way, what could have been a cardboard walk on character became much more. And I think a large part of that was movement.
Peter held his body with shoulders slightly hunched forward, making the chest shallow. He held one arm across his body, cupping the other elbow, with that arm held upright. As he talked, his hand would be there like a flag on a flagpole, moving constantly, nervously, absentminded, busy. When the character was puzzling over something the hand would move limp, tugging at a curl, pulling at an earlobe. When nervous or agitated, the hand would move more quickly, flitting, worrying.
There were many more mannerisms this character had, including the way he spoke, but you get the idea. Watching him made me ponder on the old dreaded bobble head of writing. There are two things my characters do in the first draft of a story that could cause issues in real life. One, they run around naked until I’m editing and realize I’ve forgotten to dress them. Two, they nod a lot and just stand there while in dialog.
The editing process fleshes them out more. Of course in the first draft I’m just trying to capture the story, so that makes sense. But I have to remember to go back and add those mannerisms; the movements that give depth to dialog and character, and even more depth to the unspoken dialog between characters. Body language is so important.
Clear body language for a dog caught in the act
When I watch an actor who does a marvelous job of bringing that language of the body to life, I find myself thinking – how would I describe that so it would be seen to the reader? How would I describe it without it overwhelming the message in the dialog?
Another thing I like to do is sit in a parking lot with music playing so that I can’t hear what people are talking about. Or watch people in a busy restaurant where the ambient noise makes it difficult to pull out individual voices. In those types of situations you can watch body language without being distracted by the words. And again, figure out how you would describe what you see and what you think they are talking about.
Finally, during an edit process I like to hold my hand over the dialog on the written page, look at the movements I’ve given a character, and see if those movements tell me anything or if they are just filler.
But like I said, that’s all in the editing process. For the most part, in the first draft, I have a bunch of bobble heads nodding and smiling. Or nodding and frowning. Or nodding and teary. Blah.