When devising characters, of course you build the framework of personality, appearance, and background, but once all of that’s worked out, you’re faced with making the character come to life.
One way to do that is through small but vivid details or actions that truly show the character’s heart, conscience, personality, or hidden nature.
For example, from time to time TCM spotlights the actress Ingrid Bergman as a filler, talking about her and showing clips from her famous films. In one of these clips, as the narrator describes her natural, effortless talent, Bergman is shown in a man’s embrace. She’s smiling at him and caresses his cheek with the back of her knuckles.
That tiny action conveys love, affection, delight in someone, and being comfortable enough for little intimacies. It’s far more romantic a gesture than a more “staged” onscreen clinch would have been.
Another film example comes from the movie, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (the 1952 version, starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr). While our hero is being prepped to impersonate his cousin in the coronation, he’s smiling and showing a lot of bravado. Colonel Zapt simply stands beside him and takes his pulse before saying, “A little fast, but you’ll do.”
There’s no need for fevered brows or a page of forced dialogue in which the hero is asked how he feels and he either replies or denies. The colonel has shown us exactly what we need to know to believe that Rassendyl is beyond nervous as he takes the biggest risk of his life.
Years ago, I wrote a historical romance for Harlequin called CAPTURED HEARTS. Early on, the hero and heroine survive shipwreck and take refuge in a barn for the night. In one passage, the heroine is watching Max move about as he builds a fire. He’s wrapped in a blanket, and beyond the usual description, the heroine focuses on the shifting bones in his bare ankle. It seems pretty dry as I clumsily describe it here out of context, but my editors thought that detail very sexy.
So as you put your characters through conflict and danger, think about what you can convey through an action, or a gesture, or a descriptive detail instead of long narrative or dialogue.
The little details shouldn’t replace the big ones. They are simply to enhance. And therein, they can sparkle.