I need to self-slow. I tell my students to do that all the time – “Imagine me holding you back by your shoulders” – to give themselves time to shape the sounds they want to use. Take my own advice, eh? Yes. Slow down the dialogue, the action. Ignore for a time how things look, sound, smell to the character. She won’t be aware that she’s hesitated before the mirror just a micro-second too long. She will have forgotten about her buttons. (Unless she’s Margaret Thatcher, who obsessed over hers, and what a detail that is.) So those tiny behaviors noted by the narrator will add up.
One of my latest characters is Japanese. Female, in her late 30s, two middle-school children. What kinds of buttons does she wear? More likely, how does she drink her tea? Hesitate before returning a compliment?
Another is a much-loathed teenage girl – a queen bee – who becomes prey. When we perceive someone as a victim, no matter how obnoxious she’s been, we kind of want to help, yeah? Even when she’s been in our face for three long adolescent years… in other words, forever. But where’s the tipping point? The murmur of pain? The “help me” look in the eye? The catch in the voice? It’s not just our perception, it’s the deconstruction of a hidden facet of personality. The narrator does it in ways that – crossed fingers – alter readers’ perceptions (though not memory . . . hey, she’s still the witch who slammed our beloved protagonist) and evoke empathy.
Memo to self: slow, not tell.