Let’s Get Physical 2: Sense Memory – Character First Impressions

First Impressions

We all know that first impressions count. And the same is true for our characters.

MH900252595Finding that balance between too much physical detail (which prevents a reader from using their own imagination) and too little detail (height, hair and eye colour may be too generic and not individual enough) can be tricky.

It’s also important to realise that it is not just about a character’s physical appearance. To give those first reader/character moments real impact, a writer also needs to establish a character’s physical presence.

Which is where sense memory comes in.

Using sense memory allows an author to go beyond a character’s superficial physical appearance and to delve deeper into the essence of their character – to tap into their emotional core.

What is ‘sense memory’?

‘Sense memory’ is the effect of a character’s emotional and life experiences captured or expressed in their physicality.

How does sense memory work?

Just as our bodies reflect our physical lifestyles, so too they also mirror our emotional experiences and general outlook on life. Therefore, the main question is ‘Why is the character’s body memory the way it is?’

Take the following example:

Let’s start with the barest amount of character information:

‘The elderly man walked down the road.’

This sets up the basic image for the reader, but it gives us no clue whatsoever as to the old man’s character, or, indeed, tells us anything about who he is.

Next step, let’s look at physical appearance only:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height, he was of slim build with a shock of white hair.’

This tells us more: we now know what he looks like, but the question remains, does the character description tell us who this man is? No? Well, let’s push it even further and introduce a smidgen of sense memory into our description:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height and slim build with a shock of white hair, he moved slowly, hunching his shoulders forward with each laboured step.’

The man’s forward-hunching shoulders is a small detail, which piques a reader’s interest because, as well as describing his outward appearance, it gives us some idea of the kind of man we are dealing with: what sort of character he might be.

Physical and emotional impact

MH900157951Suddenly this elderly man becomes more noticeable. He’s no longer just one old man walking down the road; he’s an old man with a history, and a life; an old man who over time has learned to brace himself against adversity and somehow still keep pushing forward down the road. And, as readers, we now want to know more.

What has happened to that man in his lifetime? What has he experienced emotionally over the years to shape him in such a physical way?  

Sense memory can act as a useful emotional shortcut to your character for your readers, creating maximum emotional impact and allowing your character to hook reader interest in a few short sentences. In other words, sense memory makes it possible for all your characters, main or otherwise, to make an immediate and lasting first impression.

Creating and exploring new characters

It’s also a great way of creating and exploring new characters. For example, why not follow the elderly man’s sense memory story and see where it takes you? You may well find yourself in some very interesting places.

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Let’s Get Physical 1: Showing, not telling, with body language

It’s a scientific fact that a large proportion of human communication is non-verbal: body language and tone of voice, rather than the actual words spoken. And yet, for the most part, body language features very little, or doesn’t figure at all, in many of our first novel drafts. Why? Part of the reason, I believe, is because non-verbal communication is second nature to us – so much so that we don’t really notice it most of the time. We read other people’s body language quite expertly often without consciously recognizing or acknowledging that we are doing so.

MB900389154The fact is that bodily actions often speak louder than mere words. If someone turns their back on us or shakes their fist at us, we don’t really need to be told where we stand with them – the body language says it all. And it is exactly the same for your characters.

More importantly, body language can often show us the sub-text to the words being spoken: describe a character with a false smile and cold eyes speaking gushing words of welcome to your protagonist – immediately the reader understands there is something else going on in this scene – it’s clear the first character is only pretending to be welcoming – but why? The reader will read on to find out the answer to that question. Expressing character emotions through their body language is perfect ‘show, not tell’, and can set up a hook for your reader all in one go!

So, how do you get physical in your writing? Well, you could use a cheat sheet detailing handy physical shortcuts to show character emotions (yes, they do exist), but Book Nanny doesn’t recommend this. They may be useful to remind you as an author to look at body language, but, remember: if you find it easy to use the cheat sheets, so will hundreds of other writers. And the result will be hundreds, if not thousands, of characters throwing their heads back and clapping their hands in amusement, crinkling their noses in disgust or shrinking back in fear, and so on. Therein lies the smoothly-paved path to a thousand clichés, and none of us should kid ourselves that readers won’t pick up on this – they will!

MB900441386The fact is, if you are looking to make your characters unique, you won’t achieve this by having them behave in the same way as thousands of other characters. In addition, you run the risk of scuppering your prose with lazy repetitions.

Instead, use the two most valuable tools you possess as a writer: imagination and observation.

Imagine whatever emotion you want to describe; call it up in your mind; monitor how your own body reacts and note it down. Observe other people – you can always ask friends and family to help you out. How do they react physically to different emotions? How is their reaction different to yours? Then ask yourself how does your character react –  the same as you or differently? That way you get a physical reaction unique to your character.

Individual, well-observed character tics and body language say far more to a reader than stock-in-trade reactions, and a character who doesn’t react as expected is often more intriguing than one who does.

But what if your character is the sort of person who does clap their hands when amused? How do you beat the cliché? Simple: detail! Look for the angle which will also put the spotlight on the character’s uniqueness, rather than focussing solely on the emotion:

‘Oooh,’ she squeaked, clapping her small, childlike hands in amusement.

Oh, and please remember that less is often more with body language.

MH900390992Give enough detail to get the message across, but don’t overdo it: you don’t want your character to read as though they are having enough physical reactions to bring on a heart attack every time they experience an emotion (you know, the heart-thumping, sweaty-palms, legs-turning-to jelly, gasping-for-breath sort of thing).

Apart from anything else, this can stray into the unintentionally comical. So keep it short, succinct and unique as much as possible.