Writing Secrets: We are what we notice

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

I read a manuscript recently in which the protagonist gazed out at the sun-filled park. Okay, fair enough, perhaps it gives us some sense of his world … but not much, let’s be honest. There was nothing unique about his view of the sun or the park.

It brought to mind a Pat Barker novel in which the protagonist noticed that his young companion mimicked his posture and gestures far too obviously for this to be unconscious.

Most of us fall naturally into a postural echo when we are in accord with someone. If they cross their legs, we do too, in an unconscious sign of consensus or harmony. What the protagonist noted, though, was something else.

This detail showed us more than what the young man was doing. It showed us the protagonist as a trained observer of human behaviour, with some experience in judging the difference between conscious and unconscious actions.

We understood him to be a man educated in aspects of body language and how they reveal personality and state of mind. He was a clinical psychologist.

It might seem a small point, yet details like this add such depth to our writing.

Our interests and occupation will always make our view unique. I always notice apostrophe misuse in signs and menus and, since I’m a knitter, I notice beautiful lace-work and Fair Isle.

If you work with children, you will notice the small boy taking charge of his small domain on the jungle gym, bossing the younger children into being his pirate minions. A disenchanted vet might notice the mounds of dog poo left by uncaring dog owners, and the young girl tottering vainly behind a straining Great Dane, yelling commands he simply ignores.

In just a few words, you can deepen our understanding of your character. You can confirm aspects of his personality and give us insight into how he feels about himself and what he does. And all without explaining a thing.

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