“Smooth and smiling faces everywhere, but ruin in their eyes.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
I did not plan on starting this week’s post about eyes. Eyes may be the windows of the soul, but how do you describe your character’s eyes or facial expression without being cliché? A book I recently finished repeated the same phrase over and over again – “his smile never reached his eyes”. Yes, we can figure out that this person is not genuine. But, what other body parts can we use to gain insight into our character’s motivation, career opportunities, pride or self-esteem? Let’s start with a story about feet.
When we moved to Florida from New Jersey I was disappointed to realize that I could no longer indulge my habit of checking out what kind of shoes people were wearing. I love shoes. Many people in Florida don’t wear shoes – they wear flip-flops. It can be 35 degrees, and they’ll be in flip-flops. And, sadly, for some of them it doesn’t matter to them what their feet look like.
I found this out early one Saturday morning in the paint department of Home Depot. A somewhat scruffy man sidled up to me at the counter and smiled. As I shifted my huge son from one hip to the other I inadvertently looked down – and almost vomited. It was shocking and nauseating that anyone would have left their home exposing those talons. Calling them Hobbit feet would have been a compliment. Brownish-yellow nails, thickly hooked and at least four inches long, his toenails were practically evil. Satan’s feet would look like this if they were not cloven hooves. I retched, feeling the bile come up the back of my throat. I got out of there fast.
As I sit here reliving this disgusting experience I now realize how useful it can be as an insight into this man as a possible character in a book. Could he actually wear shoes with those nails? If not, what did he do for a living? Did he just not care about his appearance? I can’t imagine that he was in a relationship or cohabiting with anyone. Those Freddie Krueger feet in my bed are the stuff of nightmares.
Now we’ll visit a different day, and a different body part. Yesterday, on Facebook, I was intrigued by an active thread concerning men’s fascination with their, for lack of a better family-friendly word, “intelligence.” How they are, according to this thread, a bit obsessed by their “intelligence”, and want everyone else to know how especially large their IQ is. How they get asked all the time to send photographs of their “intelligence” to women they meet over the Internet. I always knew men prized their “intelligence”, and can spend many fulfilling hours alone with it. But, here again is a body part that can speak volumes to a character’s psyche and perhaps, warranted narcissism. What fun I can have with this topic in the next book! Thank you Facebook and mystery friend whose name I will not mention.
Hands are used successfully by P. D. James to allow Detective Adam Dagliesh to evaluate the emotional state of a suspect. The calmly folded, tensely clasped, or actively wringing hands are closely watched, and the presence of pockets is always a disappointment to him.
I am not suggesting that you don’t describe the eyes of your characters. The human body is so fascinating, however, that I think it is shortsighted and predictable to solely focus on the eyes of your characters.
I do hope that I elicited disgust and laughter as I explored a couple of the body parts we have at our creative disposal. As a final note, please do not spam me with photographs of body parts. There are other individuals who would be very happy to receive them.
“I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
* * * * *
L. A. Lewandowski is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novel, Born To Die – The Montauk Murders. For more information, please see the IU Bio Page and her blog:cultureandcuisineclub.com.
24 thoughts on “Body Parts”
So right Lois. We spend so much time on, not only the eyes, but the rest of the face. Yet posture, hands, and as you so nauseatingly pointed out, feet, can tell us so much about a character. You made me think about the last descriptions I used this week. I was relieved to remember that I described a man's shoulders dropping as the tension in them relaxed. Whew! I will certainly be more aware of this going forward.
Shoulders are a really strong indication of tension. In Yoga, the instructor constantly is telling us to lower our shoulders. When I'm tense I find that my shoulders are up around my ears!
Thanks for the great example, Yvonne.
Excellent post, Lois! Overuse of the blinks and eye-rolls bears watching. And now I'm glad to live in the Northeast, where people only bare their gnarly feet a few months out of the year.
Thanks, Laurie! There are some benefits to living up north!
It was a very tough adjustment for me, to condition myself to not look down at peoples feet. Once we were in a store and two men walked in. My son leaned over to me and said, "Don't look down". I can't imagine how scary their feet were!
Lois, great post. I was laughing so hard at your description of the dude's toe nails that someone actually came over to ask me what was so funny…and I was at the hockey rink.
Thanks, Kat – I'm always happy to make you laugh. It was a life changing experience. 😉
I live in Central Florida can can attest to the fact that many people, have horrendous taste in footwear. What many of our visitors from the cold northlands do not realize is that that the combination of rubber shoes without ties, suntan lotion, rain and painted concrete (the stuff that theme parks are made of) is a ticket to disaster. When visiting the theme parks please wear safe footwear. Bob
I always tell my friends who obsess over their weight or looks that if they want to feel better about themselves, just visit a theme park. But don't look down!
I love body language and try to use it as much as facial expressions but sometimes the very best description is one of 'stillness'. That moment when a real person or a character goes so deep within themselves that all expression just… stops.
What a great point. Stillness is very difficult to achieve. So this would indicate a high level of self-control and possibly intellect.
Is that what you mean?
What a great post! I have lived in Florida all my life and going barefoot or maybe in flip-flops is just a way of life. When my mom spent the month of November in North Carolina she rebelliously worse her flip-flops even when it was 20 degrees out.
Lol, Rebekah, maybe it is a rebellion!
I'm barefoot most of the time I'm home, and I can't argue with the comfort factor. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.
Where are you in Florida?
So true! I'm so over eyes. Tell me that a character keeps scratching an imaginary itch behind her left ear while being interrogated by a blind date or that his shoulders slumped a little when his wife said something stupid. Bodies do such interesting things that eyes – or even whole faces – often don't do in real life. Maybe it's because I live in the land of stony-hard faces that I tend to notice other things and use them in my writing. Great post!
Hi Jen, thanks for the comment!
I think so many people can control their facial expressions, as you point out, that it creates a wonderful challenge for the writer to use other body language to show motivation and emotional state.
Scratching an imaginary itch is a good indication of nervousness.
Great article! I love people watching and am always looking at posture and people's stride. Being a fan of chiropractic care (it literally saved my life) I am always looking at the way people carry themselves. I used to live in Florida as well so I can relate to the flip flop mentality! I always used to laugh/scorn my mother's repeated refrain of taking pride in one's appearance. Yet again, she was right. Dang, I hate it when that happens!
Yes, mothers are frequently right on the money with their advice!
I love people watching. Our characters are all around us, just waiting to show up in the pages of our books.
Thanks for your comments.
Well put. Sorry, I was sick and missed it, but great post.
Oh, what a brilliant article! It made me think what I write and how I describe my characters. Does the crease BETWEEN the eyes count as eyes? Do eyebrows meeting over the nose count as eyes? I’ve done that in my last novel.
Oooh – this has made me want to write more than anything else I’ve read this week. Thanks, Lois.
I like the points you make about eyebrows, and creases. I found in your first book that I could see the characters quite well, particularly the crazy Maltese woman, and the sexy young one with the thick hair. You talked a lot about her hair, and that really made her clear in my mind.
I'm glad you found inspiration in this post, it was fun to write!
Thanks for your comments.
Heh. I've been doing the barefoot thing in the summer for a few years now (even before the natural running book). After a particularly irritating Saturday repair project last year, I made a quick run to Home Depot for a last-minute something or other. Barefoot. You'd have thought I was also bare-assed by the crazy-old-man looks I got. And I don't even have hobbit feet. But I do realize now that this may have something to do with a below average IQ. 😉
In Canada you see signs everywhere – "No shirt, no shoes, no service". Shoes and shirts are required by law in malls and restaurants. Makes sense to me.
Lol, I can't imagine you barefoot in Home Depot!
As to your IQ, I'm sure it isn't below average. You are a Doctor, after all.
Thanks for your comments!
Omg, definitely shirts!
I was at the beach last week, and I was scared.
I'm glad Hodge didn't get kicked out of Home Depot. He is way too classy a guy. Now, Lowe's is another matter …
Comments are closed.