The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting

As a writer, you hear it everywhere.  “Show, don’t tell.”  Don’t tell me that it was a beautiful sunset.  Describe the colors, the chill of the air, scents, and let me hear the crickets chirp.  Most of us get that, and work the senses our characters experience into our writing.

Strong Characters Should Communicate Without Saying a Word

I write contemporary, and one of the things I enjoy most about the genre is describing interesting people, things, and places.  But when it came to showing emotion, I struggled.  My characters seemed to shrug and nod a lot.  They just didn’t know how to act, so before my readers boo’ed them off the stage, I took action.

I realized that the reason my characters didn’t express outwardly what they experienced on the inside stemmed from one thing.  I don’t pay enough attention to the body language of those around me.

Assumptions and Biases – Sometimes Good Things

Why?  It’s simple.  Your mind does a lot of pattern matching in the background.  You don’t think, “That person lowered their head, so maybe they’re sad.”  Your brain picks up on signals it has noticed before, and makes a lot of assumptions based on the “tells” of those around you.  And most of the time, the pattern matching proves correct, so the mind confirms the assumptions, helping you pick up on more and more subtle cues as you learn and develop.

This saves a lot of thinking and helps us to deal with the barrage of data with which our mind must cope, without suffering from information overload.

However, for writers, since so much of this processing happens at the subconscious level, this can prevent us from accurately describing body language, tone of voice, and other ways in which we pick up on what others feel and think.  Those around us communicate an incredible amount of information, all without saying a word.  Some body language experts estimate that as much of 80% of all communication happens non-verbally.

To cope with my own deficiencies in describing non-verbal cues, I researched how to “show, not tell” how my characters might let you, the reader know what they’re thinking and feeling, from a variety of sources, including body language experts and authorities on effective public speaking.

I have compiled this research into 50+ categories of emotion, from love to hate, from confidence to fear.  I will release these emotion-specific articles frequently, until you have them all.  These entries include body language, broken down by parts of the body.  Beyond this, they also describe common reactions to emotion, how they affect how we interact with those around us, as well as thoughts and feelings that often accompany the core emotion.  We also cross-reference related emotions and words one frequently associates with the emotion.

Begin to Teach Your Characters How to Project Their Thoughts and Emotions

Get started by visiting The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting or go directly to the first emotion we’ll explore – Amusement.

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