Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Observation: How Do Your Characters Move?

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Actors move. They walk, they laugh, they fight. They move because of WHO they are because each character in a movie or play is unique. Also, each actor who pulls the puppet strings of that character adds a little bit of themselves to the mix.

How do actors know what to do? Some of them come by the understanding of character naturally. Many of them have studied the art of acting to learn how to create a version of the character they play based on their own personal set of emotions.

Writers do exactly the same thing.

Take an actor playing Abraham Lincoln (and watch how Daniel Day Lewis does it so brilliantly). We know Lincoln was tall and gangly. He had a high voice and a large head and stooped shoulders. All relatively easy to reproduce as an actor or with words in a story. But Lincoln's mannerisms are what make the man on the screen so real. In a letter written on July 19, 1887, years after Lincoln's death, William H. Herndon described Lincoln addressing a jury or a crowd. Lincoln "quite generally placed his hands behind him, the back part of his left hand resting in the palm of his right hand." Speaking softly at first, he would warm to his subject, and use his hands to help make his points, becoming animated and interesting. We can't know for sure how Lincoln looked or sounded, since recordings weren't invented until after his death, but many people in his audience, especially news reporters, have left us comprehensive descriptions. (It's interesting to read some of those descriptions—just as in today's world, the politics of the reporter make a huge difference in how they heard the speech.)

But even excellent, award-winning actors are still acting. The emotions can seem a little off—different from what you'd expect them to be—if an actor doesn't really understand his or her character. This also happens all the time in writing. 

A good way to better understand the physicality of emotion is to watch the people around you. It may be better not to purposefully make someone mad, just to get the experience, (just sayin'!) but people emote all the time. Sit in a restaurant with a notebook and pen at hand and take notes. How does a person react when the food isn't served at the correct temperature? The customer will push the plate away and lean backwards in the chair, providing distance. A good server will recognize a problem immediately and come running. If, instead, the food is perfect, we lean forward and actively engage.

A high-school football game is another wonderful place to watch how emotions express themselves. Just make sure you sit near the loudest, most obnoxious person you can. Or someone who is on the losing side. Becoming passionate as we cheer on our favorite team, win or lose, is cathartic, allowing a large range of human behavior. (This is pretty tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes the more subtle physical expressions are more beneficial, depending on the type of book you are writing.)

The examples you can find, simply by close examination, can help immensely in creating those same emotions in a character. And you can tone them down or raise the intensity, depending on your needs. If the football fan throws his hands up in the air (still attached, of course) when his team fumbles the ball, you should also see (and hear) disappointment and maybe even despair, if it allows the other team to score a touchdown. 

This exercise can also help with dialogue, if you're close enough to hear what your victim is saying. Just try not to get caught, especially if the scene playing out in front of you is volatile. 

Do you people-watch? What is the most interesting example of emotion you've seen?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—‚she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Great words this morning, Sally. I learn so much from your blogs. Please keep them coming and thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Diane! I’m glad to help.