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Body language and bunny suits

The type of "bunny suit" I wore.

The type of “bunny suit” I wore.

When I was a manufacturing engineer, I spent my first six months working in the fab—fabrication plant—learning how the line worked, and how to operate the tools that processed semiconductor chips in the 24/7/365 factory.

Because even the smallest amount of contamination can ruin a batch of wafers in process—a very expensive proposition—everyone on the fab floor wears a clean room suit (a.k.a. “bunny suit”). Which means they’re covered from head to toe in white polyester jumpsuits, safety glasses, and latex gloves. And there’s no makeup allowed!

Imagine peering down a long bay of machines to find the person you’re looking for and seeing nothing but white blobs. Other than basic height and weight, and the color of their eyes, the only other cues you might get to who a person was would come from the—often outdated or poorly done—picture on their badge. Assuming it was right-side out so you could see it at all.

It was frustrating at first. If we had three tall (because to me, who isn’t?) guys operating tools in a certain bay on a particular shift—in addition to the tool techs and engineers walking around—I might have to go up to each one to find the person I was looking for. (It’s often too loud to yell. Not to mention, frowned upon.)

Not only did I not recognize people on the fab floor from far away, but often I would see people outside of the fab, like in the lunch room, and not know them up close. Hey, who knew that Juan had a beard, or that Becky’s hair was Clairol red?

But what I found interesting about working in the fab, is that over time you do start to recognize people without the usual cues we use when we can see them uncovered. Even when they have their back turned. You learn that Frederick always stands with his shoulders hunched and his head forward. Henry always has a loose, laid-back posture, and Georgia fidgets.

I don’t do it automatically yet, but when I write body language cues in my stories, I try to remember to mention some of the things I noticed back in the fab. The stance, gestures, and mannerisms that we might not notice when we can see the whole picture, but which make each person unique.

We notice more than we think we do, and I believe that incorporating those smaller, deeper details into your work can really bring a character to life for the reader.

Photo credit: By Intel Free Press [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Same or different?

When my oldest son was in second or third grade, we lived about two hours from my parents. Whenever we visited, my son would go from room to room pointing out everything that my parents had changed since our last visit.

My son is into the details.

I’m the same way. I notice the bumper stickers and license plate rings on my neighbors’ cars. I watch how people react to each other or how they talk about each other and form opinions on their relationship. I see patterns and logic in things, and often try to hang things on a recognizable framework even if one’s not there (which can be dangerous).

So, it’s always an eye-opener when others don’t look at the world the same way.

You mean you don’t know who I’m talking about if I tell you it was the guy down the street with the red station wagon? The one with the USMC sticker and the Iraq War Veteran plate? The one who apparently enjoys living off base where they don’t measure your lawn length?*

Tony Robbins goes so far as to classify people as sameness or difference people (and some combinations of the two). Here’s the gist as I understand it. Sameness people recognize the similarity between objects or people. Difference people—you guessed it—notice the differences. To make this more clear, here’s the example Mr. Robbins used.

If I throw down a handful of coins and asked people if they were the same or different, here’s what I might get.

Sameness-oriented person: “The same. They’re all coins.”

Difference-oriented person: “They’re all different. One dime, a 1999 nickel, a 2004 nickel, a Wyoming quarter, and an Arizona quarter. Plus a wheat penny and a Canadian penny. And this quarter's all beat up, but the other one is in mint condition.”

I’m betting that sameness people aren’t good with faces unless the variety is huge. (Try telling apart a bunch of men in the same uniform with the same haircut. No wonder they wear name tags!) On the flip side, it stands to reason that even twins might not look alike to an extreme difference person.

The reason I brought all of this up is because I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my characters and I’m trying to figure out how to show their unique personalities through deeper POV. Maybe sameness/difference orientation, or level of attention to detail is one more trait I can use to make my characters unique.

As always, the challenge isn’t in the knowing, it’s in the doing. Thoughts?

*Fictional compilation of real and imagined neighbors. Maybe.

Blowing it

When I was seven, I was tasked with bringing my friend to the basement of our apartment building (overseas base housing in Germany often had odd things like basements and attic maids’ quarters) for a surprise birthday party. Terrified that I was going to somehow mess up and bring her in before everyone was ready, I left her on the stairs and went to check. So, of course everyone yelled surprise, my friend heard it, surprise blown.

I messed up by trying not to.

I’ll bet if you ask my dad he probably doesn’t even remember the incident. It looms much larger in my own mind, though. In fact, I still feel like a screw-up when I think about it. I cringe and go right back to being seven again. The ache of regret and shame rises up as if it were yesterday instead of decades ago.

Though small and seemingly unimportant, these are events that invoke strong feelings, and emotional moments are our most memorable.

Like a golfball hit repeatedly by a club, it’s the dings and cuts of life that make us unique.

Which got me thinking about my characters. In addition to the standard background information, I always have one or two defining incidents in my characters’ back stories that help define who they are and their motivations. Usually, though, the events are major or long-lasting. Death of an important person, a violent attack, life with an alcoholic, being trapped in a fire.

(I could choose good things, but where’s the fun in that?)

What if I picked a few smaller life moments for my characters and fleshed them out? Maybe I don’t even have to share them with the reader. But those moments can still inform the character’s self-esteem, fears, quirks, and motivations.

Or, an event in the current story might trigger a memory of one of those minor incidents, causing an unexpected reaction.

Now the real challenge is figuring out what the small moments should be and how to use them.

I hope I don’t blow it.

 

Get intimate with your characters

I recently picked up a book called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. Not only did it sound interesting, but I figured I could pick up something that would help with characterization. While the book wasn’t quite the field guide to which traits certain bits of “behavioral residue” were linked to that I expected, I still gleaned plenty of useful and interesting ideas.

One of my favorite sections was about a series of studies done by Dan McAdams to determine the requirements for escalating intimacy. That is, what kinds of things do we need to know about another person to feel like we really know him or her? How do we move into those deeper levels? And can we move through those levels in a matter of hours or days instead of months or years?

Aha, I thought. This applies to me.

In a romance, we're often trying to throw the hero and heroine together and get them to a happily ever after in a few days or weeks. It's always a challenge to make it believable. This is why reunion romances are popular. It's easier to believe a person would fall quickly in love with someone she already knows, rather than a complete stranger.

So here's the payoff for sticking with me this long. According to McAdams, there are three layers of identity, each one providing a deeper level of intimacy with the other person.

  1. Traits. These are the basic, outward manifestations of personality that are fairly easy to spot. The five he uses are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. When describing someone’s traits, you might use words like kind, honest, smart, sexy, fun, loud, lazy, moody, or shy.
  2. Personal concerns. These include the person’s values, political beliefs, goals, roles, regrets, and skills. She might be a wife, mother, and writer. She may want to be published by age 40, lose 10 pounds, and spend more time with her kids. She may value things like peace, family, and health.
  3. Identity. This is the inner story of the person, her past, present, and expected future as she sees it. If she strongly identifies herself as a computer expert, she’ll do everything in her power to maintain that identity, even go back to school to ensure that she’s always on top of the latest technology. If he identifies strongly with being a successful executive, he may struggle with more than just he bills if the gets laid off and can’t find equivalent work. This is why people kill themselves when the stock market crashes.

So if my characters are forced into a situation where he reveals his integrity and she proves her kindness, then they move on to scenes where their personal concerns are illuminated, and finally are thrust into circumstances that challenge their very identities, they might be able to develop a believable level of intimacy in a short span of time.

Now I just need to figure out what all of those illuminating situations are going to be.

Want to read more about characters and personality? Try these posts:

Fire the gun

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. -Anton Chekhov

I'm not completely sure I agree with Mr. Chekhov. After all, maybe the gun shows something else. The guy likes antique weapons? He's a hunter?

On the other hand, the rifle must have relevance to something. If the character is a collector or hunter, that should come into play, even if the gun on the mantle doesn't.

I recently read a story where the author made a point of noting a character's fear of fire. So, of course, I expected that to come back later. Surely he would have to face fire or flame later in the story in order to defeat the villain or rescue the heroine.

Wrong!

Maybe the author was just trying to build a sympathetic, human character. Nothing wrong with that. But in this case, it was enough outside the realm of the rest of the story that it stood out. And it stood out even more for never being mentioned again.

Who knows. Perhaps she originally had a purpose for the fear and then later changed the plot line. I'm sure I've done worse.

Either way, the experience got me thinking about how we create our settings and humanize our characters. Our goal is to populate the book with realistic, interesting settings, and humanize the characters with traits that give them a three-dimensional feel. But we have to be careful not to put in unnecessary objects or characteristics that confuse the reader.

If the heroine is afraid of heights, she'd better be forced to scale a ladder or fly in an airplane at some point. If someone drops a banana peel, another character better slip on it. Either that, or the banana should be a red herring. Somehow it has to matter. (Maybe the guy's an unrepentant litterer.)

Have you run across any “guns over the fireplace” that were never fired?

___

In memory of Dick Francis, 31 October 1920 – 14 February 2010.

“Some are born weird, some achieve it, others have weirdness thrust upon them.” ~Dick Francis (To the Hilt)