People-watching has been a habit of mine since I was young; it’s probably a habit most writer’s share. My husband enjoys attending a baseball game for the baseball; I enjoy it for the mass of people I can watch without notice. Recently I’ve been taking a more scientific approach. I’ve been checking people out with a cop’s eye. My mystery series is a police procedural that centers around a Chief of Police in a small West Texas border town. I think any police officer would agree that a large part of their job involves watching people, not just their actions, but their reactions and their body language. When Josie is on the page, I need her to observe the world as a legitimate cop would. As the writer, I need to think like a cop.
In order to better prepare myself I decided to take a month and focus on body language. I’m looking for the non-verbal cues that signal a person’s true feelings. I started by noting my own behaviors and thinking about how they broadcast my inner-feelings to the world. In my day-job I work frequently with groups of teachers writing curriculum. This fall I had to introduce a workshop speaker who was presenting a series of seven meetings involving different groups of people. Each group had fifteen to twenty people present, so public speaking was involved – never a favorite task of mine. But, it was the perfect opportunity to consider my actions in front of groups of people. I’m a reserved, shy person by nature – one of the traits I have in common with my protagonist – so I wanted to pay close attention to my own behavior.
I noticed that I often touch my neck when I speak, or rub the hollow at the base of my neck. I have fidgety hands and these are all signs of nervousness. I noticed that after I had a stressful morning, and my mind was occupied with other issues, that my demeanor in front of the group could change dramatically. I become more scattered and struggled to keep my focus. I only share this because by becoming more aware of my own behavior I am becoming more aware of my character’s behaviors. How does Josie Gray react from everyday stress? She’s smooth under pressure, but she’s still human. And, I need to work at making her more human on the page.
Over the next three weeks I’ll finish up the first draft of my second book. As I begin revising, one of the things I’ll look for is how to take characters I’ve laid down on the page to serve a purpose in the story, and transform them into real people. For example, one of the major side-characters in the series is Marta Cruz, a police officer and single mother with a sixteen year old wild-child who makes her mother’s life a living hell. I wanted to come up with something to let the reader know that she is a woman of strong faith, but also someone who worries incessantly about her daughter. In times of stress Marta absently pulls a necklace from under her uniform shirt and rubs at the back of a silver cross. It’s a visual way of showing the reader she is worried, but hopeful, without having to explain it. Show don’t tell.
This week I’m thinking about the smooth-operators in life. Those people who can hide behind a poker face without revealing their inner thoughts. I’m wondering what kind of body language they use that could help signal a key emotion in a scene. What kind of body language are you sending right now? How might a casual observer view your stance, your expression? Are you annoyed with what you are reading – interested, bored, introspective? What kind of body language do you use to reflect those emotions to others? And, how might you translate your own observations into more authentic actions for your characters?