Because characterization requires layers…lots of them. That one elusive device or trick that makes a flat character three-dimensional doesn’t exist. It takes many tools to fashion a person the reader will care about. I’d like to share a simple tool I’ve added to my writing craft box, one I picked up from twenty years of helping novice actors excel on the stage.
According to Albert Mehrabin, a noted expert on nonverbal communication, only 7% of what we communicate is communicated with words. The other 93% is communicated with 55% body language and 38% vocal intonation. Where do these alarming numbers leave wordsmiths like us? Up a creek…unless we learn to manipulate our words in order to give our characters movement and sound.
One quick and easy way to make progress toward accomplishing this feat is with costuming.
Far too often we dress our characters in jeans and a shirt and send them forth in our WIP without further consideration. But taking a moment to select costume pieces that either restrict or increase a character’s fluidity of movement can create mental body language specific for that character. Simply by adding body language, we’ve increased the believability of a character’s dialogue by 55%.
How does costuming work? For the stage, I can take a stay-at-home mom who’s comfortable in her sweats and costume her in a suit and heels and suddenly she moves like the CEO of a major corporation. Can this happen on the page? Absolutely.
In her stunning debut novel, The Russian Concubine, Kate Furnivall gives an example of costuming’s influence upon a character’s fluidity of movement. When Alfred, an uppity Englishman, makes his stage entrance in the middle of a filthy Chinese market, he is dressed in a cream linen suit. Immediately, the reader sees a man desperate to keep himself pristine. Ever tried to keep a toddler’s sticky hands off of your white blouse? Then you have a mental visual of how Alfred would move to protect his clothes in this uncomfortable environment. And it is in our mental movements of Alfred that he suddenly becomes…more real.