Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Charismatic Umbrella Fighters: A Weary & Rambly Post

My NaNoWriMo Wordcount: 2,181.

I'm way, way behind. I should be able to catch up this weekend, if I'm lucky.

Wow. Campaigning yesterday was really, really rough. I'm still extremely tired and... well, footsore doesn't begin to cover it. Legsore? Mesore? Also, while I don't want to go into politics, let's just say that yesterday's results were less than ideal for me. There are reasons to be sad and reasons to be happy. If you don't already know me, I'll let you look at my blogger profile and try to puzzle out exactly which local results made me sad, if you care to.

The only writerly thing to come out of yesterday was the odd gentleman I met on the early, early morning bus as I made my slow and torturous way to the hub from which I would be doing my best to influence the election.

He was an older man, probably in his fifties, and he looked hard-used. His tousled white hair was thinniny on top and his face was lined. He looked like he might have at one point been boyish, which clashed strangely with his age. I suppose there was something puckish about him. He smelled faintly of alcohol and his movements were a little blurry, but that was all. I'm not entirely certain that the alcohol smell was coming from him - I was on a late night bus, after all. This gentleman was wearing old, but not dirty clothing, and carries a large rolling suit case. I gathered from our conversation that he was homeless (he mentioend shelters) and a veteran of some sort.

What struck me most was that while I had a very hard time understanding what he was saying, he was enormously charismatic. He spoke very quickly and slurred slightly, the bus was very loud, and I was very tired. And despite the fact that I usually had no idea what words were coming out of his mouth, he was incredibly compelling. His voice was smooth, his vowels well-rounded. He smiled a lot and made expansive gestures.

As a writer, it was an encounter that reminded me that every detail is important. It's not enough to write what a character says, we need to include how he says it, because that is where a great deal of his personality lives.

Similarly, the content of a conversation is largely nonverbal. To get all sciency on you all, according to this article:
"Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a noted researcher in the field of nonverbal communication, found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only), 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds), and a mammoth 55 percent nonverbal. Professor Ray Birdwhistell made similar conclusions as to the amount of nonverbal communication that takes place among humans.

He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of 10 or 11 minutes a day and that the standard sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35 percent and that more than 65 percent of communication occurs nonverbally."

So, if we're going to write realistically, we need to remember that most of what a conversation means likewise isn't in what is said, it's in how it's said.

Perhaps that's why most of a character's personality is in her manner of speaking. After all, on some level isn't personality what you're thinking while you're saying? If the words coming out of someone's mouth are about, say, indian pizza (have I mentioned that this is my new favorite food in the universe?) but what he's thinking is, "I respect you as a human being and have affection for you in the brotherhood of mankind," some of that is going to come across. Similarly, if someone is talking about lizards but thinking "God, I hate you," you are going to have a very different experience of that conversation.

Landmark Education defines charisma as giving up "in order to." If you talk to achieve something, you come across as though you are trying to achieve something. If you talk to experience your fellow human beings, you come across as an open and loving human being. Charisma.

For all that he was probably homeless and possibly alcoholic, the man I met on the bus talked like he wanted to talk, not like he wanted anything.

And that brings me back to the topic I began with: my experiences yesterday. Perhaps it was so exhausting for me because there was no room for me to speak the way I like to speak. Instead of interacting with my fellow human beings in an open and honest way, I was reduced to tiny snippets of conversation.

"Good morning, we're here encouraging folks to vote-"

"Have you decided how you feel about-"

"How are you doing today? We-"

I don't know what I was projecting yesterday - did I give up "in order to?" Was I charismatic? - but the issue was contentious enough that all I encountered was hostility.

I'm going to take it as easy as I can. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be back to my bouncy, clever self.

* * *

  • What are your experiences writing a character's nonverbal self in conversation?
  • What are your experiences with writing a character's charisma or lack thereof?
  • How have you interacted with charisma? Do you have it? Do you know someone who has it? What do you think it is?
* * *

Also, I had a very silly idea yesterday:

A martial arts story set in fairly mainstream modern America, in which the main character is (and perhaps all the characters are) a martial artist trained in a secret fighting style whose weapon is an umbrella. Think about it, an umbrella with a crooked handle can be held along the forearm like a tonfa, or wielded like club, a spear, or a hook.

Plus, the fighters can all wear trench coats and fedoras.


Anonymous said...

The Kyokushin Karate Grandmaster Sosai Oyama, in one of his books, describes and shows how to use an umbrella in self defense. I forget the name of the book unfortunately but a style or part of a style of martial arts that revolves around an umbrella (a common and acceptable accessory almost anywhere) isn't as far fetched as you might think. Wasn't the Penguin from the Batman comics an umbrella afficiando as well?

Scattercat said...

That was my first ever roleplaying character! The Nekkid Elf!

I had dwarven artisans enchant the umbrella with strengthening runes so it wouldn't break. It was also resistant to fire and acid and cold. And I installed the canine tooth from a young red dragon we'd killed on the tip of it. It did 1d4+1 damage, and I used it far more than it really deserved to be used.

At one point, it saved my character from dragonbreath as the dragon was strafing the field we were in. That umbrella was awesome.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea the Nekkid Elf had an umbrella. He's the one in the magically tasteless shirt, right? That's a beautiful image. Maybe I should make the main character a rogue umbrella fighter who wears bright colors, a single splash of brilliance with a flowery umbrella, doing battle against the black-clad, fedora-wearing hordes of umbrella ninjas...

Scattercat said...

That would be flippin' sweet.