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Fixing the grinning bobblehead character (1 Viewer)

Foxee

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Patron
In a different thread I complained (a lot) about characters who were described as grinning and smiling far too often. Like adverb overuse, having characters grin and/or bob their heads can dilute what the passage is trying to achieve.

Here is an example from the first book in The Heaven Trilogy by Ted Dekker. A detective has just arrived to question a possible witness at her home.

She walked to the door and pulled it open. A dark-haired man with slicked-back hair and wire-framed spectacles stood there, grinning widely. His eyes were very green.

She allows him to come in, etc. and...

"I just want to make sure that I have the right person before I fire away, you know." He was still wearing the wide grin.

And not much further into the conversation, then...

"Just a few questions, and I'll be out of your hair," the cop said, that smile stubbornly stuck on his face..."

By the time that there is this much grinning for no reason I start worrying that the character is a lunatic or a serial killer. It seems, though, that Ted's characters just paste on grins a lot. And Ted isn't alone in doing this.

So in case someone's looking for an article that helps out with this problem. Here is one that I found that's helpful.

#Writing 50,000 Inimitable Smiles by Margie Lawson
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
In a different thread I complained (a lot) about characters who were described as grinning and smiling far too often.

#Writing 50,000 Inimitable Smiles by Margie Lawson

Nice blog there. I saved it to my Writing folder.

You concerned me, so I exported my WIP from Scrivener to a Word doc and did a global replace for "smile". Characters smile 57 times in 98K words halfway into the 20th chapter. We're talking almost three smiles per chapter, on average, although I'm certain no one smiles in some chapters.

I have no idea if I'm over or under. What's the Goldilocks factor on smiles? This could lead me to a couple of hours of Googling!

ETA: I'm happy to report I don't have a single grin.

I have 52 smiles and 9 grins in my first novel, at just over 100K words. It looks like I'm consistent.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
More on the subject. Research shows that women average 62 smiles per day, while men average only 8. It looks like Dekker's detective was trying to get his entire allotment out at once so he could relax the rest of the day.

This stat gives us an easy out. STOP writing female characters. The darned chicks have to smile too much.

From Eric Savitz in Forbes,3/22/2011:

I started my exploratory journey in California, with an intriguing UC Berkeley 30-year longitudinal study that examined the smiles of students in an old yearbook, and measured their well-being and success throughout their lives. By measuring the smiles in the photographs the researchers were able to predict: how fulfilling and long lasting their marriages would be, how highly they would score on standardized tests of well-being and general happiness, and how inspiring they would be to others. The widest smilers consistently ranked highest in all of the above.
Even more surprising was a 2010 Wayne State University research project that examined the baseball cards photos of Major League players in 1952. The study found that the span of a player’s smile could actually predict the span of his life! Players who didn’t smile in their pictures lived an average of only 72.9 years, while players with beaming smiles lived an average of 79.9 years.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Are we supposed to worry that the stubborn grin is hiding something? Did the author put that in there on purpose to make us wonder about it and feel a bit uneasy about it? Or no?
 

Foxee

Patron
Patron
Are we supposed to worry that the stubborn grin is hiding something? Did the author put that in there on purpose to make us wonder about it and feel a bit uneasy about it? Or no?
All of his characters do this to some degree so I doubt it's a cunning device. Considering how pronounced it is in the passage I quoted above Ted may be trying to indicate something sinister but in my opinion it's not the best way he could have chosen to go about it.

And it serves to make the point for the thread.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
All of his characters do this to some degree so I doubt it's a cunning device. Considering how pronounced it is in the passage I quoted above Ted may be trying to indicate something sinister but in my opinion it's not the best way he could have chosen to go about it.

And it serves to make the point for the thread.

It’s a problem if all the characters, antagonists and protagonists all have a perma-grin, yes. Why??? Do you see this as a quirk of this particular author? Or do you think this happens with lots of authors and it’s a patterns you keep picking up? It could totally be... I don’t read a lot of young authors or newer books... Maybe it’s a pattern you’re picking up in the crime genre? Do you think?
 

PiP

Staff member
Co-Owner
Lopsided grin and lopsided smile. These descriptions featured so many times in a book I recently read, I stood in front of the mirror to replicate the description.
 
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JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
....
a lunatic or a serial killer.

Little Column A, little Column B.

Writing grins is one of those things on par with telling the reader that something's funny. It's a great piece of shorthand that does a lot with a little, and it usually doesn't work. Right up there with saying a character is brilliant or mentioning that two others are in love without following up with any kind of supporting evidence.

I get around it by writing characters who don't smile. No free mirth whatsoever. Make them earn it.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Writing grins is one of those things on par with telling the reader that something's funny. It's a great piece of shorthand that does a lot with a little, and it usually doesn't work.

I get that a lot of your post was tongue in cheek--and it's hard to smile or grin with your tongue in your cheek, I just tried--but there are a lot of reasons to have a character grin or smile that have nothing to do with amusement:

encouragement
surprisingly - embarrassment
greeting
put someone at ease
with an apology
accepting an apology
delivering good news
receiving good news
enjoyed some experience (ex.: a meal)
completed an achievement
received or gave a compliment
wishing good luck/fortune

... off the top of my head.

People might smile or grin in any of those circumstances, but some people don't. So it can help define the character's personality as well as set a mood for the reader.
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
There are reasons for it, yes.

But now we're back around to the initial post. Grinning isn't so much the issue as a character that does it constantly, for no consistent or discernible reason. In that instance, would grinning not be a sign of the author's failure to use that same space for something with more substance? Look at the listed causes:

encouragement
surprisingly - embarrassment
greeting
put someone at ease
with an apology
accepting an apology
delivering good news
receiving good news
enjoyed some experience (ex.: a meal)
completed an achievement
received or gave a compliment
wishing good luck/fortune

Sure, grinning could fairly be used in any of those, but would it not improve the story to take a few extra lines and set up something more tailored for the action? A grin works in a throwaway sense; it's not wrong, but without backing it is lazy.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
There are reasons for it, yes.

But now we're back around to the initial post. Grinning isn't so much the issue as a character that does it constantly, for no consistent or discernible reason. In that instance, would grinning not be a sign of the author's failure to use that same space for something with more substance?

If it's not an organic part of the associated action, sure. But there's certainly a viable middle ground between Foxee's example and not using it at all. I don't think the reader has to be left in mystery, or to guess, about a character's facial expressions. I mean, they don't just smile or grin. They frown, raise eyebrows, wink, scrunch their eyebrows, purse their lips ... all kinds of stuff.

What do you want to do, say "Sue was happy", or "Sue's face brightened with a big smile"?

One gives you drab information, the other puts a vibrant picture in the reader's head. It's showing vs. telling in it's most basic form.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Isn't it one of those cases of assumption? If I were to say 'a person was angry', the immediate and generic template of an angry face would pop into your head. And the same goes for 'a person was happy'. Now there's the conundrum though. We can legitimately assume a happy person is going to be smiling often, even if we never mention it, so under what circumstances should it be mentioned and what does it add to a particular scene?

I don't think the use of 'he smiled', 'she smiled' is the real problem, I think it's the misuse of it, as Foxe's alluding to. If a character you're describing is in a more neutral mode of behaviour, neither happy nor sad, but rather what we would consider 'normal' then 'she smiled' or 'he smiled' is a perfectly reasonable short cut and functions (IMO) as 'said' does in most cases. It becomes one of those hidden words, taken in and not processed in the context of the narrative but rather a quick reference to 'now they're showing happiness', especially in dialogue because a smiling face when speaking, gives the voice a certain timbre.

I don't think you're meant to notice it as such, but 'note' it subconsciously.

You don't have to use 'she smiled', 'he smiled' if the scene suggests that. Take this scene from my story. Are these two characters smiling?

“Staring won’t make him come home any faster you know,” his mother said, joining him by the window. She reached her hand around him and eased his hair away from his eyes. “This hair of yours. It’s taking on a life of its own. It’s getting messier than your bedroom.” She laughed, dropped her hand to his shoulder. <- her cheeks would be full here. not smiling as such but filled with joy

“It’s alright, mum.” Tommy shook his head, undoing his mother’s good work. “I like it like this.” Then, after again fixing on the gate: “Dad’s hair’s like this anyway.” <- devilish face but still joyous

“But he’s always at sea, son. There’s no room for a barbers when you’re swashbuckling on the open seas and digging up chests.” She brought her hands up besides her face and wiggled her fingers. “Oooooo. … Too busy fighting off skeletons or harpooning sea monsters.” <playful face. Again not smiling but full cheeked.

“Got to look good for the mermaids though … right?” <- definitely smiling.

“I’m not sure about that, son.” She ruffled his hair and gently pushed his head. <- definitely smiling.

Tommy turned around and smiled. “You might be a mermaid for all I know.” <- here is where I thought a smile was necessary. He had his back to his mother and the scene is broken momentarily. We can't assume he was looking at the gate with a smile on his face. That would be odd in my opinion. He'd be looking with concentration and expectation.

His mother stepped back from the window, looked down at her legs. “Oh, I never thought about that. Perhaps your dad bonked me on the head and kidnapped me. Come to think of it, I am a little bit floppy when I walk.” She waddled around the room, the look of discovery in her eyes. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, just look at that. Do you think we should call the police and have him arrested for kidnapping a maiden of the sea?” <- again those full cheeks. Hiding a smile rather than a full on smile.

“Naaaa,” Tommy said, “I quite like having you as a mum.” <- definite smile

“And I quite like having you as a son,” his mother said, and returned to finish off her chores. <- definite smile
 
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vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Isn't it one of those cases of assumption? If I were to say 'a person was angry', the immediate and generic template of an angry face would pop into your head. And the same goes for 'a person was happy'. Now there's the conundrum though. We can legitimately assume a happy person is going to be smiling often, even if we never mention it, so under what circumstances should it be mentioned and what does it add to a particular scene?

I don't think the use of 'he smiled', 'she smiled' is the real problem, I think it's the misuse of it, as Foxe's alluding to. If a character you're describing is in a more neutral mode of behaviour, neither happy nor sad, but rather what we would consider 'normal' then 'she smiled' or 'he smiled' is a perfectly reasonable short cut and functions (IMO) as 'said' does in most cases. It becomes one of those hidden words, taken in and not processed in the context of the narrative but rather a quick reference to 'now they're showing happiness', especially in dialogue because a smiling face when speaking, gives the voice a certain timbre.

I don't think you're meant to notice it as such, but 'note' it subconsciously.

You don't have to use 'she smiled', 'he smiled' if the scene suggests that. Take this scene from my story. Are these two characters smiling?

You're welcome to it, but it's inordinately rare to find me writing that someone was happy or angry. I write it out with expressions and/or actions. Just checked my WIP, which is a few thousand words from complete. I used happy to describe a character once. I did use it to describe the general impression of a group, also once. The word appears a few more times, but in expressions like, "He'd have been happy to, except ...". I don't describe someone as angry even once, although there are characters who are very angry at times.

"Cay. Is there some chance the loud noises I heard coming from out here have anything to do with the crouching, cursing, snarling demon in my boudoir?"

I'll take that over "the angry demon" every time.

You're correct that anything can be overworked. Also correct that things like smiled, grinned, and frowned get used as dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are another thing I rarely use. Both to keep the speaker straight, and just liven up a sequence of dialogue, I'll describe some action or expression associated with the next speaker.

So instead of:
"You're right," he answered.

I'll have something like:
He looked down and tapped a pencil repeatedly against the edge of his desk as he considered his answer. Finally, he decided. "You're right."

Not only does it make a movie for the reader, but it (as I call it) eats words. ;-)
 
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TheMightyAz

Mentor
You're welcome to it, but its inordinately rare to find me writing that someone was happy or angry. I write it out with expressions and/or actions. Just checked my WIP, which is a few thousand words from complete. I used happy to describe a character once. I did use it to describe the general impression of a group, also once. The word appears a few more times, but in expressions like, "He'd have been happy to, except ...". I don't describe someone as angry even once, although there are characters who are very angry at times.

"Cay. Is there some chance the loud noises I heard coming from out here have anything to do with the crouching, cursing, snarling demon in my boudoir?"

I'll take that over "the angry demon" every time.

You're correct that anything can be overworked. Also correct that things like smiled, grinned, and frowned get used as dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are another thing I rarely use. Both to keep the speaker straight, and just liven up a sequence of dialogue, I'll describe some action or expression associated with the next speaker.

So instead of:
"You're right," he answered.

I'll have something like:
He looked down and tapped a pencil repeatedly against the edge of his desk as he considered his answer. Finally, he decided. "You're right."

Not only does it make a movie for the reader, but it (as I call it) eats words. ;-)

We're in agreement here I think. All I'm saying is 'she smiled' or 'he smiled' are often invisible words just like 'she said' or 'he said'. If you pointed those out at the beginning of a novel and hammered it home they were overused, the reader would start registering them every time one cropped up. If you hadn't drawn attention to them, they wouldn't.

This is one of those cases. The scene itself should show whether the character is 'likely' to be smiling but in some cases it's necessary to draw attention to it subconsciously. The same goes for 'he said', 'she said'. If you look at my example, I've rarely pointed out either character is smiling and used 'he said', 'she said' only twice.

I could easily get rid of those too. The only reason I added 'he said/she said' is to draw a line under the scene. They could be written like this:

“Naaaa, I quite like having you as a mum.”

“And I quite like having you as a son.” His mother returned to finish off her chores.

In both instances they're definitely smiling, but without those 'he said/she said' tags, the scene would faze out and not have the impact I wanted. They're kinda like saying: And that was their last definitive statement.

edit: obviously the first said at the beginning was necessary because there needed to be an indication who actually said it there.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
We're in agreement here I think. All I'm saying is 'she smiled' or 'he smiled' are often invisible words just like 'she said' or 'he said'. If you pointed those out at the beginning of a novel and hammered it home they were overused, the reader would start registering them every time one cropped up. If you hadn't drawn attention to them, they wouldn't.

This is one of those cases. The scene itself should show whether the character is 'likely' to be smiling but in some cases it's necessary to draw attention to it subconsciously. The same goes for 'he said', 'she said'. If you look at my example, I've rarely pointed out either character is smiling and used 'he said', 'she said' only twice.

I could easily get rid of those too. The only reason I added 'he said/she said' is to draw a line under the scene. They could be written like this:

In both instances they're definitely smiling, but without those 'he said/she said' tags, the scene would faze out and not have the impact I wanted. They're kinda like saying: And that was their last definitive statement.

edit: obviously the first said at the beginning was necessary because there needed to be an indication who actually said it there.

We're a bit out of context here, because the assumption could be that the reference to an expression is carrying the load. It's OK for it to occasionally carry the load, but at least as I write, it's generally a part of a larger construct.

From later in the scene I quoted a line from earlier:

I had been standing to Athena's left at the doorway. Now I was to her right, and I saw the three deep scratches down the side of her face. I hastened to pour the first martini from the cocktail shaker, and she took it up immediately. Not much shook Athena. This sudden transformation and attack had.

There was a rustling behind us as the redheaded demoness approached. She had shucked the corset and, typical guy, I noticed she wore nothing beneath the blouse. Her demeanor was demure and … ashamed. To her credit, Athena didn't flinch as the demon reached up to touch her cheek. When she did, the scratches filled in, though they didn't fade. For us, that would happen in time.

"I beg your pardon. When a bound demon is suddenly released, our behavior is predictably erratic."

Athena managed a smile and a nod, and I handed the 'girl' the second drink out of the shaker. She downed it in three gulps and clinked the cocktail glass back onto the bar. I emptied the last of the shaker into her glass and started the process again to get my own. This time, she began with a sip.

So Athena smiles. She's not really happy. It signals that Athena is regaining composure. By the way, I amused myself when I typed "predictably erratic". :)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
We're a bit out of context here, because the assumption could be that the reference to an expression is carrying the load. It's OK for it to occasionally carry the load, but at least as I write, it's generally a part of a larger construct.

From later in the scene I quoted a line from earlier:

I had been standing to Athena's left at the doorway. Now I was to her right, and I saw the three deep scratches down the side of her face. I hastened to pour the first martini from the cocktail shaker, and she took it up immediately. Not much shook Athena. This sudden transformation and attack had.

There was a rustling behind us as the redheaded demoness approached. She had shucked the corset and, typical guy, I noticed she wore nothing beneath the blouse. Her demeanor was demure and … ashamed. To her credit, Athena didn't flinch as the demon reached up to touch her cheek. When she did, the scratches filled in, though they didn't fade. For us, that would happen in time.

"I beg your pardon. When a bound demon is suddenly released, our behavior is predictably erratic."

Athena managed a smile and a nod, and I handed the 'girl' the second drink out of the shaker. She downed it in three gulps and clinked the cocktail glass back onto the bar. I emptied the last of the shaker into her glass and started the process again to get my own. This time, she began with a sip.

So Athena smiles. She's not really happy. It signals that Athena is regaining composure. By the way, I amused myself when I typed "predictably erratic". :)

Yeah, it's one of those nice little oxymorons.

So, let's break down what we're establishing here because this is after-all the hints and tips section:

1 - If possible construct scenes in a way that denotes happiness, therefore a smile, to avoid having to use 'smiled' too often.
2 - In moments when that happiness dissipates, there is cause to consider the 'quick fix' of a 'grin' or a 'smile'.
3 - Overuse leads to sloppy writing and removes the need to set up the scene in a more natural way
4 - Whilst 'smile'.'grin' can often be considered 'tags', just like 'said' ways of avoiding it should be considered when possible.
5 - Obsessively considering 'tags' that are essentially invisible words can lead to overthinking, so try to be objective in all cases.

Any others?
 
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