Characters do more than just talk at each other. They move – with grace, in anger, to disguise emotion – and movement tells even more about them than their words.
Understanding and using action to tell a story is both powerful and organic – a naturally evolving way to strong characterization.
What is body language? Google it on the web – you’ll find dozens of books by experts from all sides: psychology, business, spiritual growth, forensic investigations and many, many more, all useful in their own way. I even watched a fascinating TV program the other night on spotting lies and bought the book because of it.
Each expert ultimately says the same thing, although in different ways. Humans have a universal language, one that translates across the globe. And, if an author can capture that physical reaction in words, there is an instantaneous and, often, unconscious connection formed with the reader.
Wow! What better way to reel your reader in? Showing a reader what your character is feeling simply by the way he stands or she smiles is mega-powerful! But it’s not just about a lip curling or an eyebrow lifting or eyes narrowing. In fact, more than one writer doesn’t understand just how potent a well-executed message cluster can be. In Body Language on the Page, one of Mary Buckham’s excellent lectures, we are told that:
One of the most important elements of body language is that it is most often shown in clusters of signals and postures, depending on the internal emotions and mental states of an individual. Recognizing a whole cluster is thus far more reliable in real life and on the page than trying to interpret individual elements.
Let’s take a character - a female private eye who is strong-willed, brave to the point of foolhardiness, and angry at men. But let’s also give her a vulnerability: her mother died when she was young and she feels guilty because children often do.
So, what do you think she would look like? Exhibit as body language?
I can see her wearing a short, tight skirt and red and black cowboy boots and an attitude a mile long. Let’s give her long purple-painted fingernails that she taps on her phone as she waits for the guy who’s asked her to meet him at the nearby coffee shop because he doesn’t want to be seen in her office.
Her legs are crossed, barely covering the essentials, and her drawn-on eyebrows are getting lower and closer together as she waits.
A woman and small child walk by and the mother stops long enough to tie her daughter’s shoe lace. Our character turns her head, not willing to watch the tenderness with which the mother smiles up at her child.
Then, when the long-awaited client finally shows up, our heroine stuffs her anger and anguish and, with little disguise of her temper, bites his head off.
This character is acting in the manner a woman in her position with her background would. She is going to be hard-shelled and difficult with easily pushed buttons. And her body will show this with every movement she makes. Or doesn’t, if she’s stuffing the emotion. But the reader will identify with this character, based on the messages her body gives them.
Contrast this type of character with a preacher’s wife. Chances are that she’ll be soft-spoken and well-mannered with her emotions hidden behind a smile – sometimes forced. Maybe she would wear a dark-colored dress, buttoned to the neck with a small white collar. A black sweater over all of it would allow her to hide any vulnerabilities she has. Her shoes are non-descript flats that she will place with care as she walks, as if on eggshells.
Her daughter has just defiantly blurted out that she’s pregnant, so our character drops into a chair and wraps her sweater around her body to protect her core, slipping off her shoes to tuck her feet up under her dress. Do you see the fetal position - one that shields her from things she doesn’t want to think about? Her emotions may eventually evolve into anger and her body language will change.
Next, she puts her feet solidly on the ground, with or without shoes, and she’ll pull the sleeves of her sweater up past her elbows, baring her arms for the coming fight. Her voice, earlier trembling and weak, will take on power and strength and, for the length of the adrenaline rush, she’ll sound like a mother bear, defending her cub. But all too soon, at least until a character arc changes the situation, she’ll retreat back into the wifely role – the sleeves will once again cover her arms, her voice will become soft again and she’ll slip back into the character she needs to be.
Clothing also matters immensely – we need to dress our characters! – but it’s only window dressing if the body language doesn’t match.
A woman’s hands are cupping her face, her eyes are wide open with the whites showing all around, her brow is scrunched up and her mouth is slightly open, almost slack. What emotion is she feeling? Shock? Fear? A combination of both?
I really think it would be shock because, if she were truly afraid, she probably would be running the other direction. Or this reaction might just be for a second before a get-away. But she could be a character who just saw something horrible – a dead person? Or the twin towers falling on TV?
How could you describe her in a story? Especially from her POV? Could she feel the warmth from her hands against her cheeks? Or cover her mouth with her hand (a similar reaction) to stop a whimper of fear? Fright also causes a dry mouth and trembling lips. Maybe she tries to swallow but can only lick her lips to try to stimulate saliva. A sudden backward movement – a step backwards – is also a common reaction to shock.
There are literally dozens of physical ways of expressing emotions. Incorporating only a couple of them in a scene – especially a ‘large’ scene – can make your character much more real.
I’ve just mentioned a few emotions – there are many, many places to find more and I encourage you to look for ways to portray them. Post some of your body language examples!
Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.
A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over sixteen years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at www.sallyhamer.blogspot.com or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.