My last post was about clichés, and how too many of them create a flat affect in prose and character. So how to get around them, especially if you aren’t the sort of writer who creates lapidary and poetic prose?
Jane Austen’s reworked drafts show that she was already identifying overused figurative language. Her changes were just about always in the direction of realism. Not the gritty realism of today, but telling detail that resonated so much with readers that many thought she was writing about them or someone they knew.
Plain yet vivid language, details . . . of what? How do we vary those emotional changes? We don’t want everyone bellowing in anger, weeping in sorrow, gasping in surprise, and nodding agreement.
The first thing I learned when I began watching people for inspiration was how human beings could vary in emotional reaction—and how they would react similarly.
I was once in a crowded room when an earthquake hit. Most looked around, then skyward, then up would come the arms, partly for balance, but partly for defense. Later, I saw a videotape of a woman caught in a high rise when a quake struck. What did she do? Look around, then up, then out flew her arms, fingers spread.
Another time, I was a witness when some police chased down a criminal and caught him. Their backup arrived moments later. Some of the men turned brick red, others paled. A few walked around fast, without aim; one guy kept yapping questions at everyone in a sharp bark, to which few paid attention. They all had different ways of reacting after the sharp adrenaline spike of action.
Observing people is a great way to build character, especially when something happens. But just observing them going about their lives can teach one a lot. How do people signal emotions if their eyes are not conveniently glowing, smoldering, glinting, twinkling, or blazing? Who meets whose eyes, what is the angle of their head? Watch hands—those can be very revealing. How is the person breathing? Fast? Loud?
What is their posture? Slouch? Upright? Leaning subtly toward or away from someone? Are they sitting in closed-in angles, or open, easy posture? Does the person take up a lot of space, or drift along the perimeter? Sometimes people mirror postures unconsciously.
Watching old film reels of real people is very illuminating. Documentaries where people are not mugging for the camera are also interesting. I don’t recommend watching fictional TV because the actors are hitting marks, and their movements are directed. If you want to see how false their body language is, turn off the sound and notice how careful actors are in relation to one another—there is none of the surprise and uncertainty of real life, because they not only know what is coming next, but are readying for it. Especially in fights.