Sunday, January 30, 2011

Character Tells V. Character Traits

The more I learn, the less I know. But this past experience of working with an editor really taught me a few things.

One thing I've been musing on lately is the difference between character tells and character traits.


I like to use character tells. In the past, I thought it defined the character.


It does not.


It is one part of the equation, but without building those tells into traits we are writing uni-dimensional characters.


As you may know, a character tell is something they do.....clicking their tongue, straightening their tie, refusing to drive a car and walking everywhere


We should never give a character a tell without building it into a trait
.


For example
Clicking their tongue implies judgment....is this character judgmental?

straightening their tie incessantly implies vanity or insecurity.....does this character have other vain or insecure traits?


refusing to drive a car implies cowardice or past issues....do we support this in the character as a whole?

If we have a character who flips her hair but isn't at all vain then we may be missing an opportunity to create more depth.

We need to pay attention to which tells we choose to use....use them sparingly....and back them up with fleshed out traits.



For example.
..in my new WIP, I have an antagonist who is dangerous and very controlling. I have decided to give him a character tell of running his fingers through a cluster of keys that is always on his belt loop.


Why? the keys will play into the story but, more importantly, they are the source of his power and control. By having him constantly touch the keys, it shows he may not really be in complete control...that he might be seeking validation in that moment. Or he might just be reminding himself of his powerful position.


Either way, the tell was given for a specific purpose.


and, just for fun..here is a snippit of this happening in my current work (it's a modern day western MG):

He tugged on the wide brim of his Stetson hat and then ran his fingers through a cluster of keys hanging from his side belt loop. They clink-clinked against each other like ice cubes in a glass.

Questions: what do you think of this concept? do you use tells? do you support them with entire character traits? once I was able to catch the vision of this, it really helped me...I got so excited I just had to share!

24 comments:

ali said...

This is a fabulous lesson, Tess. Helpful, insightful and easy to understand--which is just what I need!

I'm kind of in draft mode at the moment, so I don't think I've put in any tells, yet. But this is going to help me tremendously when I go back through on revisions. I think I have used tells without backing it up with character traits ~ so now I'll know to pay attention to that!

Thanks Tess!

Elle Strauss said...

I never really thought of this before. I'll be keeping the tells vs traits in mind while I work on revision for my wip du jour.

thanks!

Kristal Shaff said...

It's always great to find a way to connect to our characters. Purposeful tells. Nice. :o)

Sarah said...

Love it, Tess! Thanks. Now that I think of it, some current tells fit, but others don't.

This is such a helpful way to approach the concept...

Tess said...

I can't say how much this concept has helped me in my characterization....I still have lots to learn but I won't make the mistake of using false tells again (I hope!)

glad you all found it helpful, too!

storyqueen said...

I hadn't thought of it this way.....sometimes I am not certain why my characters do something....that is just what I see them doing in my head.....but linking it to a character trait would really make it stronger.

Shelley

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Fantastic tip. I can see how being aware of why we give a character a 'tell' would add a lot of depth. When I think of my current WIP, I think I'm doing it subconsciously but it will be better if I develop those threads. thanks!

Anne Gallagher said...

Wow, this is great. I'd never thought of it before. I wonder if drinking or not drinking coffee is a tell or trait. Thanks Tess.

Tess said...

Anne: I think characters can have food/drink preferences that don't have to be based in anything other than just their preference....but if they make a big deal about not drinking coffee the reader might wonder why. Or if they have to drink five cups by 10am, then we might want to see him/her as someone with a lot of drive and ambition. Just my two and a half cents.

lotusgirl said...

I love the way you put this. It's a great reminder that there needs to be character traits behind every tell. All of this gives our characters depth. I would love to hear more about your new story. Let me know if you need any reading.

Domey Malasarn said...

Tess, this is a really great point. I think I figured this out eventually, but I never thought of it quite in this way. I just realized that there were some character tells that were more relevant than others. I see now that it's because those tells reveal traits.

L.T. Elliot said...

You? Just blew my mind. What a brilliant idea about the keys! Holy wow I'm glad you posted about this because I never though of doing something that subtle and brilliant.

Jen Daiker said...

Haha L.T. Elliot had me laughing, only because I agree. I've never thought about this. You blew my mind. It's crazy. You're seriously awesome.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

man you are so smart! this is awesome girlie - hope you are doing well!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Oh my gosh, there's so much here. Thank you!

Alissa said...

This is something good to think of. I have to admit, I've never been good about character tells. That tends to be something I go in and add after the fact, and linking it to a character trait? Well, that makes perfect sense, but of course I never thought of that before.

Ashley Graham said...

I use character tells all the time, but I'd never quite realized I did it until reading this post. Thanks for providing me with a little writerly insight!

Paul Greci said...

Tess, great post. I'm just starting another revision pass on my WIP, and this will help me focus on linking tells to traits! Love it!

Mary Aalgaard said...

That's some of the best character development advice I've read. I'm going to save this post. I do it, but sometime without good intention. I like how you say to give them a trait, but then the reason for it.

Kiki Hamilton said...

I loved this post Tess. I'd never heard of character tells before. But I am really working on understanding characterization more so this was perfect timing to find this post. Thanks!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

What a great post, Tess! Character tells are so useful. We all do things that say something about us, right? But I find that when I am in the heat of writing, I lose track of these little habits and actions. When revising, I like to read a manuscript for each character, just to keep track of the tells and be sure my character is consistent. It's fun, though.

SAMUEL PARK said...

Hi Tess--This is really great--I like how you broke it down--tell v. traits. And I'm absolutely with you on the little details that tell you everything about the character. And I love the example you used. It connotes all the things you wanted to, and it also leaves room for the reader to attach her own interpretation of what the description's all about. Great post.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

This totally makes sense, Tess! If you think about people with certain behaviors, there is a meaning behind them. Great post!

Tess said...

so very glad this was helpful to some of you...like I said, when I caught the vision it really helped me better understand who my characters are. Happy weekend, all!