Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nervous Characters

I read the latest chapter in my young adult book to my critique group. One critiquer said there was too much “clenching”. (Not the romantic kind).My character, thrown into a stressful situation had reacted with clenched teeth, clenched fists (twice), and (in previous chapters) a whole body clench.

A character in danger is an interesting character. It encourages readers to turn the pages and find out what happens next.  But how does a writer “show” nervousness and pent up anger?

The “clenching” method does “show” nerves and works well in moderation. Here are some other ideas:
  • Biting lips, fingernails, or the inside of the cheek.
  • Inability to stand or sit still: drumming fingers, tapping or shifting of feet, crossing or uncrossing legs, pacing.
  • Pushed toward anger/ready to fight: knuckle cracking, fist flexing, standing up, crossing the arms.
  • Eyes: glancing toward a door or around the room (i.e. looking for an escape route), glaring (challenging), eyes fixed on something other than the speaker or thing making them nervous (denial, “If I ignore this thing, it will go away.”).

For other “showing” ideas, page through a book on body language. There is subtlety in every human movement. We instinctively recognize and interpret them to read another person’s mood. Our job as writers is to intellectually use these movements to telegraph what’s going on in our character’s minds.

In addition to “body business”, another way to show nervousness is to create a “nervous” simile or metaphor appropriate for the age level and situation. A couple of sayings you may recognize are:
  • “Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.” 
  • “Jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof.”

And a non-cat description: 
  • “Nervous as a live fish in a toilet bowl.”

Find a unique, non-cliché way to describe your character’s mood. It can lighten a tense mood with a little humor, as well as showing (there’s that word again) something about your character. Example one’s rocking chair analogy has the feel of an older person, while example three relates to the experience of a younger character (i.e. flushing a deceased carnival fish down the toilet).

What’s your favorite “nervous as” phrase?

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