Michille: Character Actions

medium_60_Things_For_Characters_To_DoOne of my favorite writer blogs is Writers Write. Most of what they write about is creative, but they also discuss business writing, and blogging and social media. A recent topic was a fun one for me – 60 Things for Your Characters To Do When They Talk Or Think. What things can characters be doing while talking? What actions will reveal character more thoroughly?

When I read the list, I mixed up a few which ended up giving me amusing images, like bathing a cat (I mixed up giving a dog a bath and cuddling a cat) and watering a child (mixed up watering houseplants with watching a child play). Of course, giving a cat a bath could create some hilarity in a story. Some of them seem a little too much like sittin’-and-thinkin’ activities, like knitting, hiking alone, or waiting in the doctor’s office.

A couple of the ideas could yield clues to mystery if that is a part of the story – sorting through photo albums or old papers, cleaning up a hoarder’s mess, or even rearranging furniture. Sorting through medications could be a way to show the hill health of a character or obsession with his/her health if it’s vitamins, minerals, and other supplements. Sharpening knives could be perceived as a threatening act in the right circumstances (or the wrong ones). Ironing clothes could display a character’s OCD if he/she keeps ironing until the seam is absolutely perfect.

I just read a book in which the female character buttered the same piece of toast three times, so I found this post very timely. What do you have your characters do when they are talking?

15 thoughts on “Michille: Character Actions

  1. Lately, my characters are dancing, drinking . . . undergoing a magical medical check-up. In practice, most dance floors are too loud for conversation, but in a lot of fiction, it happens. I’m reminded of the dance scenes in Pride and Prejudice (-:.

    (-: Bathing a cat while conversing sounds like it would take a lot of typographical gymnastics! But yes, it would take teamwork to get a cat bathed without major injuries!

    • Bar room dance floors are loud, but ballroom dance floors are not. Regency characters can talk while dancing but communication would need to be of a different sort in a bar/club, or they would have to be shouting.

    • Remember in class when we did an exercise on creating a structure based on something besides the traditional three-act? I think that was it. I did mine based on a card game, and thought, well, that was odd. Fun, but odd. But I found myself basing a scene of a recent story on German whist. It was a lot of fun, making typical “card talk” do double duty for the two characters’ secret agendas.

      My medical check-up felt more like info dump on the world’s magic systems rather than a conflict and a conversation. I may have to think about that one a little bit more — I’m stuck in the middle of that story.

  2. There are lots of opportunities for ‘movement, thought, and changes in body language’ in knitting!

    It’s probably best to avoid knitting if you aren’t a knitter – because if your description is off, you will definitely annoy any readers who knit. The same goes for any other skill – I once read the most bizarre description of weaving, that made it hard to regain confidence in the writer.

    Having said that, knitters can – be tense, jerky, drop stitches, fumble, or otherwise have their thoughts or the conversation intrude on the task (you don’t knit with your ears, so knitting and talking are perfectly compatible).

    It can also show that the knitter is sleepy, distracted, or just happily knitting at a constant speed.

    They can also use knitting to calm themselves, as a barrier between them and another character or the world – or possibly as an obsessive behaviour.

    Knitting can also be used as an excuse to avoid eye contact, to pause in the conversation, to have time to think without it being obvious.

    Miss Marple used knitting to great effect!

    • That’s really interesting, Anne. I’d never have thought about all these possibilities.I don’t knit, but I do crochet a little. My grandmother used to crochet and watch soap operas. As a child, I was fascinated by the way her hands moved liked machinery, creating these intricate doilies, while her eyes never left the screen.

      • My grandmother crocheted, too, but she was abysmal at it. I love the knitting thing, but I couldn’t use it because I don’t knit, although I do a little hand quilting. Elizabeth is our quilter here at 8LW, but I know these days a lot of quilting is done by machine and not by hand.

    • Ooohh! My favorite example of fictional knitting: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Not only did it add characterization, it turned out to be an important plot point (not a driver, per se, but part of the whole thing).

  3. Thanks for this post Michille, your sorting through medications example triggered some very useful ideas for a stumbling point in my current story. Thanks for that.

    In general, my characters seem to do a lot of eating and drinking in early drafts of my stories, though there has been some shopping, a few entertainment like events and, most recently a murder investigation.

    Must give this topic more thought.

    • I had high school girls continually doing homework – in a house that was being renovated, including stripping wallpaper, inventorying household items, etc. It seems like a no-brainer that they could have been doing something much more interesting than sitting at a table or a desk. Sometimes I get lazy on the first draft. But it is fixable.

  4. I like the knitting example, too, and I knit a little so I could comfortably go with the dropped stitch and the counting while you’re putting in a cable, for example. I love the moving furniture example! When I was in grad school, my roommates could always tell when I’d had a bad day because when they came home, the house had been rearranged. And I did a lot of furniture moving yesterday—putting sort of a fresh take on things, so to speak. So that’s one task that resonates for me.

    Usually, though, my characters aren’t really doing anything except talking, and I try to convey their emotional landscape by how they do that—so, they twitch in their chairs, cross their arms or legs, lean forward or back, rearrange their clothes, etc. Or they might be preparing a meal or doing something else pretty mundane. So far, my peeps don’t have hobbies—maybe that’s something I should think about adding. My conversations are sounding pretty dull next to the Writer’s Write list!

    • I thought the same thing, Kay. Figuring out what hobbies (compulsions) the characters have can really add. Biting nails, twirling hair, playing air guitar (my husband does this while talking – it could, possibly, maybe, make the talker think he is not really listening). It opened my eyes to finding ways to open the window into character.

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  7. In one of my drafts, I had Susannah’s uncle cleaning his fingernails with a knife. The point was that he wasn’t really paying attention. Didn’t really care about the conversation. He cared more about his mani-hands.

    I’ll have to think more about other things my characters can do besides the typical “Regency girl” things. Great post, Michille!

    • I could see a LOT in cleaning fingernails with a knife. Actually, I think I could see that as paying very close attention and making a point with it. He’s paying attention, all right – he just wants to skewer whatever argument is being presented. Fine motor control and therefore control over emotions in that he can clean his fingernails with a knife (I have to keep my fingers well away from blades). Threat – he has a knife handy and he is so good with it, he can trim a cuticle – imagine his accuracy with going for a larger organ.

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