Body language

Body language is a very powerful tool in the hands of some people who purposefully move or act in a way that provides the exact story they want to tell.  But usually what our bodies say is a completely unconscious form of expression.  Every day we use our bodies to tell our own personal story, providing any number of messages about how we feel, such as frustration, angst, sorrow, happiness, anger, weariness or delight.   It’s also possible for our bodies to be telling a story that is totally at odds with the words coming from our mouths (how often have you responded “I’m fine” to the daily “how are you?” as you struggle to pull yourself up the staircase after a hard night out).

But body language is entirely visual, so what do you do when you’re writing fiction and there are no pictures to guide your audience?  You can’t have your characters standing around like statues looking at their watch (or sundial) waiting for something to happen, they have to be animated as well.  And in the case of fantasy fiction, body language may present challenges or dangers for your characters by misreading the signs before them in a creature that is either otherworldly or a humanoid with unusual physical signals.  Here are a few tips to help you on your way.

  • Turn off the sound on the TV –  Watch an interview, the news or a live video with the sound turned off then look at the way people stand, use their hands and fingers, move or hold their head, position their arms, etc.  What do you see?  If someone is leaning slightly to one side and tapping their foot, with their hands on their hips and a look like thunder on their face, then you probably wouldn’t say they were happy.  Similarly if someone throws their hands in the air and storms off you’d assume they were very angry or frustrated.  But I didn’t have to say the obvious adjective, “Terry was frustrated”, instead I can describe his body language.  This can make for a more animated read and a multi-faceted character.
  • Catch someone lying – Either watch question time in parliament or catch one of your kids (or partner) doing something they shouldn’t, either way you’ll probably catch them lying.  But what is it about they way they look that you can tell this?  Did they blush?  Or stand quite rigidly?  Cross their fingers behind their back?  Not meet your gaze?  Fidget?  Shift their feet about?   Draw lines on the ground with their toe?   Again, I didn’t have to say “they’re lying”, instead I can describe what lying looks like in their body language even while the character is professing their innocence.  This can be useful when you’re implying that someone’s lying, but you want to get the reader to figure it out as the story progresses.
  • Act it out – Sometimes when I’m struggling to get a facial expression or bit of body language right in a story I will act it out, either in my chair or in front of a mirror.  If I’m upset, angry, ecstatic, exhausted, etc. what would I normally do with my body and what would that look like?  Act it out and then describe it.  Note, the character doesn’t necessarily have to be with anyone to express body language, for example: She sat at the desk with her eyelids growing ever heavier as the clock chimed midnight.  She pressed one hand to her brow and massaged the skin with her fingertips to encourage a little more energy to seep out of her skull.  “Just a little longer”, she whispered.  But after a few deep breaths she gave into her weariness with a lingering sigh.  Her head drooped to one side onto her cupped hand as her spine curved against the back of the chair.   In moments she was asleep.
  • Fictional creatures can have body language too – This is an extension of what I was saying in my Faces blog.  You could have someone who knows the fantasy creature explain their body language or have your characters misinterpret it only to be presented with danger or an awkward situation to overcome.   I recall in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book he had a bookish creature with ears that were particularly expressive in showing its emotions, a bit like a dog.  So you can also use the known body language of a real animal that your readers can empathise with to get your message across (e.g. if a dog is being protective the hair on its back will stand on end, but when it is content and friendly it wags its tail and may even roll onto its back and present its tummy for scratching).  Even if your fantasy creature is like an insect, there are forms of body language you could use that your readers already understand, e.g. a scorpion will raise its claws and its tail will arch when it’s about to strike.
  • Even ordinary things are fine – Let your characters cross their arms, tap their feet, clap their hands, hug their friends, pick up a jug, slam a door, etc.  It’s good for these ordinary types of expressions to be a part of the story because your readers can empathise with them and it brings animation to the character.  Years ago I was in a school play and all the drama teacher had us do was walk in, say our lines, and walk back out again.  It looked absolutely horrendous when I saw the video afterwards – a bit like stuffed dummies on stage.  But for a handful of scenes in the play one of the other teachers managed to coach some of the kids to perform in a completely different way.  The teacher had these kids use props, move about the stage as they said their lines, express themselves with their hands and bodies – essentially he made the acting look more realistic.  And that realism made the scenes far more enjoyable to watch.  The same applies to writing.  If your characters are just sitting around like stuffed dummies it’s boring, but crank up the actions (even ordinary actions) and suddenly it’s a whole different read.

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