Sometimes, the most telling details are found in unlikely places

I was introduced to this exercise at Bekki Hill‘s workshop “It’s Not Just What You Say” at the Winchester Writer’s Festival back in June (used with her permission). Explore your character by exploring his or her hands.

Think about it: what do your hands look like? Are they long and thin with a French manicure? Are they rough and tan, indicating frequent physical labor (or rock climbing. Okay). What do your hands say about you?

I find that approaching a character’s personality head-on can often be daunting. Asking yourself “What is he like?” Is a whole lot more difficult to answer than “What do his hands look like? And what does that say about his character?”. Thinking about these minute details may also answer questions you didn’t know you had.

Here are a few details to explore:

Hand

Photo Credit: Sean A. O’Hara

Are their hands

  • Clean or dirty?
  • Rough or smooth?
  • Scarred?
  • Do they have all their fingers?

Are their nails

  • Clean or dirty?
  • Short, long or different lengths?
  • Manicured, chipped, or bitten?

If they are wearing nail polish

  • What color is it?
  • Is it plain or more detailed?
  • What state is it in?

Are they wearing rings? If so

  • What fingers are they on?
  • What do they look like?
  • What condition are they in?
  • Do they fit?

Then answer these questions:

  • Why are their hands and nails in the condition they are in?
  • Why do they have their nails painted like this?
  • Who painted their nails?
  • Why haven’t they painted their nails?
  • Why do they wear each of these rings?
  • Where did they buy each ring/acquire them from?
  • Is there a reason they don’t wear rings?

What do their hands tell you about your character’s:
Age? Size? Habits? Finances? Career/ambitions? Relationships? Health? Personality? Level of confidence? Beliefs?


Here’s what I came up with for a character from my dissertation:

Allen’s hands are smooth, but tan, some dark hair creeping up towards his fingers and in between his knuckles. His nails are clipped neatly, though not painted. On his left ring finger he wears a plain gold wedding band, and his class ring on his right: MSU class of ’92. The green gemstone glitters from frequent polishing. “You’ll go far” is engraved on its smooth interior. He hadn’t expected it would be literal. But when he met Lorie, he’d have given anything to be with her. Even if it meant moving 1000 miles away from his beloved home state.

On the palm of his left hand, he has a small scar: an accident with a fishing hook and a cat in his father-in-law’s backyard. His kids were laughing until they saw the blood. He drove himself to the hospital with Lorie in the passenger seat, squeezing his arm because she thought it would keep him awake. The kids stayed at their grandparents’.

Today he twists his wedding band around his finger, slides it over his knuckle. There’s a tan line there. Even if he wanted to cheat, his married condition would be obvious. Not that he wanted to. He isn’t the cheater.


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