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Story Design Tips: What To Do with Characters When They Talk?

What will you do with your characters’ bodies when they speak? Here are a few tips.

So you’ve given your characters dialogue, text to speak. You’ve even made sure that the dialogue is not just cold text, but actions, and that these actions come from the characters’ purposes. The question now is: What do you do with your characters physically, when they perform their actions through speech? You can’t just have them standing and talking. That’s boring and false. But what will you do with their hands? What will you do with the rest of their bodies? Will they move from place to place or will they stand still?

Theater theory has given us actions. Conveniently, it’s also tackled this problem.

The following are the four physical attributes your character needs to have at any given time. They cover everything.

Physical attribute #1: The character’s personality

Look around you and you’ll see that each and every person stands in a unique way that stems for his or her personality. This is a physical attribute that appears almost regardless of what the person is feeling or saying or what mood he is in. Some scowl constantly, some have a bent back, some stand crookedly, some look tired at all times of the day. Every person is different.

On this canvas, we’ll start adding detail.

Physical attribute #2: The character’s mood

At any given time, any person or character will have a certain mood: happy, sad, surprised, hysterical, depressed, angry, and so on. You must add this layer to the first layer, and make sure that we are able to see this mood on your character.

Sometimes we can’t see moods on certain people. But there is always a reason for that. If the character is cold and stoic (physical attribute #1), then he wouldn’t show his mood. However, even stoic characters have moods which are relative to them. Sometimes these can be seen. Always be precise in what you show.

If you have a character who needs to hide what he is feeling, you have to check whether he is successful or not, is something slipping through the mask, or perhaps some of the effort is showing. Always be precise.

Physical attribute #3: The character’s action

As we’ve established in the previous two Story Design Tips columns, a character will always be performing some kind of action. We must see that action performed.

Think of yourself as the character. You know what the action is. Imagine what you would do to achieve it. You have to perform the action right now! What would you do? You must do something, because the character must do something to achieve his purpose.

Next, remember that the character also has a hindrance. How would that change the way you would perform that action? The second you convince yourself that you must perform the action, you’ll find the physical action that will be taken by the character.

There is an exception to showing the character’s actions, and that is showing the character’s reactions. Few people react and act at the same time. When being surprised, when being astonished, when being astounded, when being caught off guard, when listening rapt, when laughing, we stop performing actions and we simply react. The same thing is true for your characters.

Physical attribute #4: How the character would perform that action

Each character would perform the same action differently. One character would perform it by bullying, another would be impotently angry, another would be sneaky, another would be alluring and sexy, another would try to be friendly, another by crying, etc.

This also decides what a character does with his body and what he looks like when performing the action.


This is tough to get right all the time. Fortunately, it’s been done before by the best, and some of these examples are really good study tools.

Try looking at A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. Jump to any point in the middle, when more than one character is talking, and freeze the frame. You will actually be able to visually see all the elements mentioned above in each character in every frame.

Disney, back when he was alive, followed these rules to a tee in his animations. Check out the original Peter Pan, the dance number and the Magician’s Apprentice number from the 1940 movie Fantasia. Check out the Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy cartoons which were created when Disney was alive. Freeze the frames, see how Disney made sure that all physical attributes were being fulfilled at all times.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a serious Tennessee Williams play, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, or the game you’re working on: these rules work, and they’ll help you when you design the character interaction scenes.

Join us next time…

It seems like we covered everything. But the truth is that sometimes a dialogue needs to be bad or you can’t create actions that seem interesting enough while delivering the text that you need to convey. There are a few solutions to that. Next time we’re going to see exactly what they are.

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