Public Masturbation, Eating Oranges Slowly and Opening Doors With a Flourish: How Strong Gestures Bring Characters to Life

By Becky Tuch

I don’t remember much from eighth grade English. There was Catcher in the Rye. And there was some talk about irony in literature. Also, there were many novels, the inside covers of which I used to pass notes to friends during class.

My English teacher, however, I remember vividly. I remember him because he was kind and charming and funny. Also, he masturbated in front of the class every day.

Okay, okay. He didn’t masturbate…literally. But there was a certain way that he would hold the chalk, gently rocking it back and forth in his hand as he spoke. He would hold his hand at a certain angle and at a certain range from his body and, well, to us eighth graders restless and antsy with the early twinges of adolescence, our teacher’s chalk- handling provided us with endless winks, nudges and dirty jokes.

As a fiction writer now (who still uses books to pass notes to friends, though in a different sort of way), I can see that this teacher stands out in my mind not for what he said or taught us, but because of his body language. His trademark gesture.

Gesture is important. Gesture, I believe, is as significant as dialogue, action, and thought processes when it comes to bringing our characters to life. Gesture is what puts our characters in the physical world, showing that our characters have bodies and that they must orient themselves within a world of physical objects.

Often too, the right gestures can reveal tension in a scene. Your character’s words may be saying one thing, but what your character does with his/her body could say something else. This is the essence of subtext: the conversation that takes place underneath the surface-level conversation your characters are having. The right gestures can reveal what the characters are hiding from one another, in turn building conflict.

Many writers have trouble finding the sorts of gestures that will bring their characters to life. We rely on the most familiar movements: The worried man runs his hand through his hair and over his beard; the concerned woman leans in to listen to her friend; the adulterer twirls his wedding band; the teenager rolls her eyes, snaps her gum.

Raising eyebrows, tapping feet, biting lips, leaning forward or back, turning one way or another—all these gestures are clichés. Though they might be realistic, they don’t quite go far enough to leave a lasting impression of a character.

Not in the same way as, say, the teacher who paces in front of the chalkboard miming masturbation. (You’re still thinking about that, aren’t you?)

So, how do you, dear hardworking writer, find the right gestures to really bring your characters to life?

 First, let’s look at the pros.

Among the many delightful scenes in Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, there is the early conversation between husband and wife, Benny and Rachelle, in which Rachelle is trying to convince Benny to attend to his sick mother. The two are outside their home, smoking a joint, when Rachelle broaches the topic of her mother-in-law’s rotting teeth. In this scene, Attenberg uses gesture both to enforce what the characters are saying and, at the same time, reveal the nature of their relationship:

 “Do we have to talk about this now?” he said. The chill of the air and the smoke from the joint united into one giant cloud. He ground out the rest of the joint under his shoe.

“When would you like to talk about it?” she said.

He put his hand at her neck lightly and then circled his hand around her hair into a ponytail. At any given moment, she could never be sure of who was in control of their relationship.

Attenberg uses gesture here to exquisite effect. First you have the husband trying to end a troubling conversation, grinding out the joint just as he would like to grind out his wife’s words. Then you have him circling her hair with his hand, a gesture that is both affectionate but also possessive, tender while also being manipulative. The tension is not lost on Rachelle, who reflects on who is truly “in control” here.

Another stellar example of meaningful gesture appears in Dennis Lehane’s first novel A Drink Before the War. Lehane is a master of revealing character through body language. In this book, he reveals character while also showing the wry and skeptical attitude of his narrator, detective Patrick Kenzie. Consider these lines in the novel’s opening chapter:

A young doorman, with cheeks so smooth he must have skipped puberty altogether, opened the heavy brass door and said, “Welcome to the Ritz-Carlton, sir.” He meant it too—his voice trembling with pride that I’d chosen his quaint little hotel. He held his arm out in front of him with a flourish, showing me the way in case I hadn’t figured it out myself, and before I could thank him, the door had closed behind me and he was hailing the best cab in the world for some other lucky soul.

Notice how Lehane doesn’t just say the doorman held open the door. He tells us how he opened the door (“with a flourish”), and then uses Kenzie’s sarcasm to express how the character feels about the doorman’s gesture (resentful/mistrustful.)

In Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife, we can see another instance of gesture used to magnify tensions between husband and wife. Here Nathan and Meri are young newlyweds. They are thinking of buying a home. In this early scene, Nathan has learned that his wealthy mother will finance the home purchase. Meri feels conflicted about this.

The window in front of Meri is open. She props her bare feet on the sill. The curtains rise and fall around her, sometimes brushing her legs as she listens to her husband. Oil sparks out from the skin of the orange as she bends it, sparks out and disappears in the air, leaving its scent behind. There is white puth under her fingernail. She eats the sections slowly, carefully peeling off all the threads. Nathan and his mother are talking about money now, about interest rates and monthly payments….

He hangs up, and the room is quiet for a long moment…

Then she feels his hand on her shoulder. “Hey,” he says gently. She reaches up and touches him with her own orange-smelling fingers.

“Hey, turn around,” he says.

Meri does, gripping the arms of the chair, picking it up and turning it with her. She sits back and looks at him…Their knees are almost touching.

It doesn’t take melodrama and arguing to build tension in a scene. Here Miller shows Meri’s alienation from her husband by depicting the slow and methodical way she is eating the orange. (She is more attentive to the threads and pith of the fruit than to her husband’s conversation about the home they are going to buy.)

Like in the Attenberg excerpt, we see here the power play between husband and wife. Nathan asks Meri to turn around. She does. But she brings the chair with her, “gripping the arms.” She is unwilling to relinquish her control. She is unwilling to surrender. When she turns to face her husband, their bodies are near each other, but not touching. It is Meri’s gestures, not her words, that reveal this tension.

Another piece of advice for getting a better grasp on gesture is to watch people. In the Gesture seminar I teach at Grub Street, students spend time in the nearby food court just observing people and noting their mannerisms. It’s amazing what students come up with when they give themselves time to actively observe. One student ended up with a whole new story inspired by a young girl who couldn’t stop squeezing her empty water bottle, crinkling the plastic inside her fist. Another student inspired me to begin a story by the simple way she described a woman meticulously eating a sandwich out of crumpled wax paper.

There is a whole battery of feelings and ideas that we express with our bodies, either enforcing what we say with our words or contradicting ourselves. Because these movements are often unconscious, it is here where our characters’ true thoughts and feelings are often expressed.

Still want more advice about using gesture in your fiction? Then please join me Friday, January 17th for my seminar, Small Gestures Make Big Characters. I will be happily leading a discussion on building characters through gesture. I hope to see you there. You’ll recognize me as the writing instructor constantly clicking her pen, twirling her hair, and not going anywhere near the chalk.

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About the Author

I am a fiction and nonfiction writer, based in Pittsburgh, PA. My fiction has been honored with fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and the Somerville, MA Arts Council, as well as awards from Briar Cliff Review, Glimmer Train and Moment Magazine. Other writing has appeared in Salon, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Post Road, Salt Hill, The Offing, Hobart, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, Literary Mama, Tahoma Literary Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Tikkun, Virginia Quarterly Review online and several anthologies including Best of the Net. In 2010 I created The Review Review, a website dedicated to reviews of lit mags and interviews with journal editors. The Review Review was listed for seven consecutive years in Writer's Digest's list of 101 Best Websites for Writers. I am also the creator of the Lit Mag News Roundup, a bi-weekly newsletter that provides writers and editors with an overview of all the latest news in lit mag publishing.

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