Character Movement & Characterization

When coming up with a new character, or trying to introduce him (or her) to the reader, writers often focus on what he looks like, or perhaps how he talks. What color hair does he have? What color eyes? (fiction, as a whole, is very obsessed with eyes, and I totally fall prey to this, as well) What kind of clothes does he wear? When he speaks, is his voice loud or quiet, slow or fast?

Less frequently, I think, writers talk about how a character moves. And yet there’s so much information that can be gleaned from this. I notice this most often through watching actors on TV and in movies—of course, those are more visual media than literature, but while writers can’t “show” a character the same way a TV screen can, we can describe him.

There are so many things to consider when sketching out a character in a scene, or in general. His clothing might tell us a little about him. His hair color and eye color tell us even less. But how does he stand? How does he walk? Does he hunch and look up at people, even those actually shorter than him? Are his hands constantly fiddling with things, or are they straight by his sides, or jammed in his pockets?

When he sits, is he slumped in his chair, or straight-backed? If slumped, how so? In a wide, casual way, as if completely comfortable, or as if he’s so exhausted he can’t manage anything else? Or is he slumped because it makes him seem smaller, less threatening?

hannibal

I sort of love the way this scene in Hannibal is shot in general, but the way the characters move (or don’t move) in it do so much to characterize them.

Even if we want to talk about eyes, there’s much more interesting things to talk about than color, which is pretty much something we’re born with and tells us very little about who we are. More reveling is how our character’s eyes react. Does he stare? If so, how so? In a threatening way? In a creepy way? Do his eyes twitch? Does he blink more often than normal—less often than normal?

Of course, you can’t overload a scene with every single little tic. That would quickly get excessive and boring. But too little of these physical descriptions, and characters start feeling less like actual human beings and more like chess pieces.

Next time you watch TV, study the way a good actor/actress embodies their character, telling us things about him or her with the way they move or stand.

Have any recommendations for good shows/really fantastic actors? Personally, I love the way Natalie Dormer plays her role (it’s a tad spoiler-y, so I won’t say which role) in Elementary, and I’ve only just started Hannibal, but Hugh Dancy is pretty brilliant as Will Graham.

17 Responses to Character Movement & Characterization

  1. Adam Silvera
    Adam Silvera Apr 4 2014 at 1:02 am #

    I love this post so much, Kat! This is definitely something I want to keep in mind when developing characters – especially minor characters who don’t get as much screen-time.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 4 2014 at 6:58 pm #

      Thanks, Adam! 😀 And yes, this is so important especially for characters whose personalities need to be established in very little space.

  2. Aubrey Cann Apr 4 2014 at 11:13 am #

    I’ve noticed that lately while watching TV as well–actors are able to do such subtle things with body language and facial expressions that tell so much. I think it’s especially telling to read these physical cues when we know one character is lying to another. (See: every character on House of Cards. Also, Brody on Homeland.)

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 4 2014 at 6:59 pm #

      I just started watching House of Cards! And those actors are all so talented, aren’t they? 🙂

  3. Ellie Apr 4 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    One of my favorite things to do when writing is show how characters move and sit and stand. I majored in Animation and we had to take classes on Acting and movement. How to show emotions and tell a story without speaking at all. It’s really helped so much with writing and characterizing 🙂

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 4 2014 at 6:59 pm #

      Majoring in Animation must have definitely given you a wonderful base for describing movement! 😀

  4. Julie
    Julie Apr 4 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    Kat, this is such a great post! What a great observation of the way actors use movement to convey character. Hugh Laurie comes to my mind – when I see him without the cane I’m always surprised – I forget that the character of House needs the cane – not the actor! 😉 Thanks for giving me some fresh ideas to use in drawing my characters.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 4 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Thanks, Julie <3 <3 And yes, Hugh Laurie is a great example!

  5. Patrick Stahl Apr 4 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    I try to only mention details that have to do with the character’s personality, body shape (as in muscular, lithe, etc.), or mood/emotional state unless I’m trying to set up a cultural thing with varying hair colors or something to that effect.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Apr 4 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Those are great examples of times to describe character details 🙂 🙂

  6. Alexa S. Apr 4 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    Excellent post, Kat! (I’m not sure, but have you talked about this on your blog before too?) I do think it’s interesting to consider how a character moves, as that often says a lot about a person. I definitely will be a little more observant the next time I’m watching shows or movies!

  7. Sandy Apr 9 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    I definitely recommend everyone check out Robert Carlyle in the show Once Upon a Time. The show is about fairytale characters cursed to live in “normal” town in our world and they also have cursed identities so almost every actor plays two different characters and they are quite different from each other. Robert Carlyle plays Rumpelstiltskin (giggly, deal making “imp” with no sense of personal space) and Mr. Gold (a merciless business man who basically owns the whole town).

  8. Hamed Apr 18 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    At last!
    Reading yours and your co-Pubcrawler gals’ articles, I always wanted to start talking about art in general but it always seemed too pretentious. So this time I have to warn you: ”you started it.”
    OK
    I like your Idea about artists’ responsibility toward the messages they send out but not like that. I think they should only be concern about the quality of the art’s message and not about the quiddity of the message. You, As an artist- I think- should say what you think is right how radical or weird it is. You may think it can get dangerous but I can assure you the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship. And believe you me, an Iranian knows about his censorship.
    Any ways…
    It would be exciting if we could talk about what art is and does it really exist but I guess it needs a new post. Would you please write about art more?
    And, for me it was Three Colors: Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, narrated by his assistant.

  9. Sandy Apr 22 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Can’t believe I forgot to mention this. Check out Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black.

    She plays about 5-6 different characters in one season. And usually plays 3 characters interacting at once and I often forget that it is her playing all the roles.

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