Physical Characteristics Say More Than Words

In an earlier post, I mentioned how some books have the ability to make us cry. Now, to be fair, I never cried reading a book until after I had some kids. Then, suddenly, something happened to my hormones.

The first book that made me cry was Linda Howard's (ironically) Cry No More. She did an excellent job with showing in this book. In the prologue the heroine's baby is literally wrenched from her arms. Kidnapped. First chapter is years and years later. I can't remember if the reader is told that the heroine is still grief-stricken, that this event forever changed her. What I do remember is the heroine's hair, and the silver streak that appeared after her son's kidnapping.

Another book that showed a woman's grief using a physical characteristic is Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic. In this book, the widowed heroine loses her ability to see color when her husband dies. Eventually she sees color again, but never red, the color of the stop sign the teenagers ran when they killed her husband. It's been at least ten years since I read this book, and I still remember that.

We're not told "The heroine is sad", "the heroine is heartbroken". No, these clever authors gave their protagonists a characteristic that forever marks them as wounded, as changed.

It's a good lesson for me to remember when creating my own characters.

Do you use physical details to "show" the emotional/mental state of your characters?


Kristen Painter said…
I'm sure I do, not that I can pull out an example right now.
Jessica Nelson said…
Oh, c'mon. LOL Too early in the morning? :-)
I don't remember an example such as that, but it's fantastic! I'll have to keep my options open that way.

Great post! Thanks, Jessica.
Angie Ledbetter said…
Good info and reminder here. I'm trying hard to infuse a lot more sensate (did I spell that right?) details, weather/locale points and symbols into my WIP. All things that mirror the emotions and struggles of the MCs, I think.
Joanne said…
I read your comments about Alice Hoffman on Donna's blog. I'm slowly working my way through her books, and haven't read Practical Magic yet. Though she does use the very same characteristic of not seeing the color red in Ice Queen. You're right, in a good book, we're not "told" how the heroine feels. It's all about the rule Show, don't Tell.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Janna, I'd forgotten about that too. It's a great technique though, and I'd love to try it in my own writing.
Jessica Nelson said…
Angie, that is so smart! Weather is always a great indicator, but using symbols is pretty neat.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Joanne,
Thanks for stopping by my blog. Reading Donna's mention of Alice Hoffman reminded me of this, actually. :-) I hadn't read her in so long, but when Donna mentioned her, I realized how strong the characterization was that years later I remember this detail about the heroine of Practical Magic.
So Hoffman uses the same technique in a new book, huh?
Wow, what a great "get your brain thinking" post, Jessica.

I need to work on this.

Obviously it's the uniqueness of those physical characteristics that make them stick even years later in the reader's mind. A huge lesson in that.

Guess I better dig deep and come up with something very unique that only my character would experience.
Jessica Nelson said…
I'm thinking of doing the same thing, Eileen. One character of mine had a scar, but it had more to do with his past than with the man he is now.
Anonymous said…
I can't think of any now, although my MC's physical characterists mark her as an outcast in society. She's half American and half Japanese in a time when being mixed was viewed as being "dirty" or as a "mutt" and being an outcast your entire life does tend to affect your psyche and personality. Much of the bitterness that she has can be traced back to her physical features, simply because she never felt like she could belong anywhere.
Tana said…
Excellent point Jessica!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi T. Anne, thanks for stopping by. :-)
Dara, it sounds like you have an interesting story that will hit home with a lot of readers.
This is an area where I need lots of practice. I'm waiting to hear from Cup of Comfort about a submission on grief. I hope I did enough showing.

Susan :)
Jessie Oliveros said…
I like that-a physical characteristic that goes deeper than what the character looks like, but defines who they are. Do you have a clear picture of your MC in your mind when you start, or does that develop as you write the book?
Coming back to say I tagged you this morning. Check it out! :)
Angela Ackerman said…
I think showing emotions through physical actions and reactions is the best way to get the reader invested in your character. A bond is created when the reader connects to a quirk, habit or reaction as a result of a felt emotion as memory is often triggered.

We connect to what we can relate to.

Nice blog!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Susan,
I bet you did fine with showing.
:-) Let me know what you hear back.

Hey Jessie,
No, I never have a clear pic of my MC. I've heard that some writers pick out pictures, etc. but I have to work to "see" my characters. I usually feel them, their internal strife and outer challenges, then start writing. You?
Jessica Nelson said…
Janna, I'll be by later to check it out. :-) Nothing like a rousing game of tag!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Angela,
Thanks for stopping by my blog. I have to admit, quirks are really fun. I love a character who has some sort of "thing" they do. Romance writer Amanda Quick is particularly good at making her heroines quirky. ;-)
Interesting about them helping us to relate. I hadn't thought of that before.
Anonymous said…
Hmmm. I can only think of my WIP at the moment, since I'm in the dredges of getting it finished ... my heroine has a tattoo of a bird on her back that symbolizes a very dark part of her past. When she gets upset or nervous, she feels its wings flutter, as if it were alive.

Great post, Jessie! I'm going to have to read those two books now! I have seen the movie, Practical Magic, though. But I don't remember them trying to portray that particular physical trait. It would've been hard to, I think. Just another example of how books can lose a bit of the magic when transferred to the big screen, IMHO.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hey Anita,
I saw the movie too, years after the book. The book was much more involved and many details were left out. Like in the book, the daughters grow up. It's way more sensual too (something I probably shouldn't have owned at sixteen, LOL).
Didn't the movie skip the death of her husband?
Jody Hedlund said…
Hi Jessica,

I like your blog. You've got some great writing tips! Thanks!

Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Jody,
Thanks for stopping by! :-)

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