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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Building a Character: What kind of animal am I?

Mausi, mausi, sag mal 'Piep'!

Mausi, mausi, sag mal ‘Piep’!

No, I’m not going crazy. Figuring out what kind of animal your character might be is a basic acting exercise familiar to theatre actors, and it can be a useful character building tool for authors also. Basically, actors use ‘animal work’ to explore the essence of a character. The trick is to progress beyond the simple representation of roaring, mewing or squeaking, beyond even the clichés – ‘wily as a fox’, ‘quiet as a mouse’ or ‘greedy as a pig’ – to an internalization which will give a fully rounded and nuanced physicality recognizable (albeit often on a subconscious level) by an audience.

So using an animal reference can be a great way of getting a quick handle on a character, either in your own mind or in the mind of your reader.  Like a form of visual shorthand.

With his dull brown hair, large eyes and perpetually twitching nose, Mr Doulton resembled a rather dim-witted mouse, but Hannah soon found to her cost that his personality was pure ferret, and nasty, bad-tempered ferret at that.’

Two sides to every animal 

References to animals have powerful connotations and it is these connotations (for good or bad) that can be utilized by writers and actors alike.

This little piggy...

This little piggy…

Take the pig, for example.  Even when used positively, there is an underlying sense of uncontrolled appetite about them that can be exploited.

‘Hannah could barely hide her laughter. The fact was that Mr Blower had all the appearance of a rather jolly pig stuffed into an expensively-tailored suit.’ 

Of course, you don’t necessarily need the full animal – you can still work from the basic pig image, but highlight certain aspects with equally powerful effect.

Mr Blower was a short, rotund man with little, piggy eyes and ludicrously tiny feet.’ 

or

‘Mr Blower’s hair was coarse and blonde, bristling to a peak on top of his head. His nose was snub and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a perpetual porcine grin.’

Obviously, you need to use animal references wisely and sparingly, otherwise your play or novel will begin to resemble some form of bizarre humanoid barnyard or an exotic zoo with an Orwellian theme. The whole point is, of course, to get the writer or actor’s imagination working beyond the obvious: to look for and think about physical nuances which not only set each character apart from the others, but also give an indication of what makes them tick.