So Many Faces

December 19, 2009 at 5:15 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

My kind-of Christams post with a kind-of link to character creation.

Do you watch people when they open presents?

I don’t mean in the creepy-judgemental way where you glare at them until they manage to contort their face until an ‘appropriate’ expression of gratitude.  I meant the general, I’m intereseted in what you think kind of way.

People receive gifts in a few different ways depending on the situation.  This is my list of observed typical reactions:

  1. They know what the gift is in advance and are happy to be receiving it.  These people are grinning broadly before they even begin to unwrap.  They might rattle the packet a bit and make comments like, “I wonder what this could be?” but when they finally open the present they give it a quick look over, hug the person who gave it to them and move on to the next gift.
  2. They know what the gift is in advance and think it is the worst idea for a present they ever heard.  They also make comments along the lines of “I wonder what this could be?” but there is a definite sense that they are grinding their teeth at the ridiculousness of having to play through the charade of opening the gift.  Once opened they might say “Oh look, its a…” then they also put it to the side and move on but they don’t hug the person who gave it to them.
  3. They think they know what the gift is in advance and are happy about it.  They grin as they pull the paper back but then their face kind of freezes into the ‘oh’ kind of expression.  It doesn’t matter whether they like the actual gift or not there are a few moments of dead time while their brain attempts to shift gears.  Finally they decide whether they like or hate the gift and react accordingly.
  4. They have no idea what the gift is and love it.  The squeal with delight, and busily turn it over and over examining what it is and thinking about where it will go and when they can use it.
  5. They have no idea what the gift is and neither love nor hate it.  They thank the person politely and move to the next one.
  6. They have no idea what the gift is and really can’t believe someone just gave it to them.  I’ve seen two distinct reactions to this scenario.  The usual one is the forced smile and the forced “thanks” meanwhile this gift isn’t stacked neatly to the side, it is usually just slid along the floor, usually in the direction of the paper pile with the false hope that maybe it will vanish.  The second reaction is the “what am I going to do with this” reaction which never seems to go down well.

Yes there are other ways to receive gifts but these are the typical reactions.  What does this have to do with writing?


Your characters react to situations.  Reactions that fit within typical and expected models don’t require a huge amount of explanation as to why the character reacts in that way.  Their dog just dropped a dead mouse at their feet.  They say “Eww gross” – they are probably a female or a more urban male and they get squeamish around dead things. Nothing really needs to be explained.  They kick it aside – they are either male or female and are trying to get the thing out of their sight but at the same time not react verbally because that might show them as weak.  Again, not much to explain.  They pick it up and decide to place it on their desk – you best explain this one because I don’t think the reader is going to understand why anyone would do that.

So – your protagonist was given a gift for christmas.  What was it and how did they react?  (Mine firstly asked for an in-depth explanation of what Christmas was including references that she could look up to verify my facts and then she stared at me blankly over the wrapping paper before asking me “Why do you think I need a hairbrush?”)



  1. Corra McFeydon said,

    My protagonist is uncomfortable being given gifts but reacts graciously; you can’t tell he’s flustered, but he is.

    The skeptic character (who actually runs the novel despite my best efforts) is an efficient gift opener and shows no emotion that isn’t natural. She’s difficult to impress and isn’t very moved by generosity. If she catches you watching her she’s annoyed.

    She’d be profoundly moved if the protagonist gave her a gift because he would know to do it in such a way she opened it in complete privacy and never had to acknowledge it.

    The main character (as opposed to the protagonist) would be pleased with anything you gave him, and if it was homemade he’d be touched. He wouldn’t mind being watched and wouldn’t likely need to fake a reaction because the very act of giving the gift would mean more to him than whatever he was unwrapping.

    (Great post.)

  2. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    Your post reminded me that I find gift giving and getting a little stressful! Reactions are definitely why. I don’t read reactions well, and it makes me uncomfortable.

    Let’s see…my sleuth would probably be impatient with the whole little ceremony of gift giving and receiving. She’d give very practical gifts that she picked up at the grocery store five minutes before. 🙂 Her recipients would wonder about the tire gauge.

    She’d be *delighted* with anything her grandson gave her. She might give a “hmph” at some of her other gifts.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Gift giving is always stressful. I definitely though they were on to something in Thailand where you always open gifts privately. That gave you some time to compose an appropriate response before you had to see the person again. Plus, when you were giving gifts you never were given that stony silence and stare that could mean anything but usually meant you picked the wrong thing.

      I love the idea of a character giving someone a tire guage because they went shopping on their way to the gift giving.

  3. Carol Kilgore said,

    My current protagonist searches for gifts that the recipients have indicated they want. She doesn’t wait for special occasions to give them. When she’s given a gift, she smiles and says thank you, sometimes with a hug. I know some literal people like your hairbrush receiver.

  4. jmartinlibrarian said,

    How about this reaction: Oh, a bathrobe with chartreuse kittens. Thanks. *forces a closed mouth grin* Blinks and thinks: What in the wide world of sports did I do to tick off my mother in law this year?

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I like that reaction. It also reminds us that the reaction on the outside isn’t always the reaction on the inside. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – It’s so interesting to think about how our protagonists would react under different kinds of situations! It’s important to think about that, too, because the more “alive” and real our characters are, the more likely they are to be real to the reader, too. This is a really helpful post!

    My own protagonist would probably be grateful for a gift, as long as it was practical and not too “showy.” He’s not much for a lot of fanfare, so he wouldn’t want a fuss made over him. He’s down-to-earth, too, so he’d prefer something useful.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is definitely about making sure our characters feel like they could be real to the reader. Thanks for the comment.

  6. methesnake said,

    This post had me laughing because it was true, and then impressed by the insightful comments at the end!

    Hopefully all your gift-ees will be happily surprised this Christmas 🙂

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