Six impossible things

Body language

Body language is one of those things that has to some extent become a code. “He shrugged” “She sighed” “I smiled” and so on have become almost like punctuation – nearly meaningless things inserted into a paragraph or a line of dialog to let the reader know that there’s a pause here, or a small change in the level of the action, or something that needs just a little more emphasis.

As a result, some writers find it difficult to move beyond the code. They don’t stop to think about all the little things real people really do when they’re listening or fidgeting or concentrating or bored, because they have these basic code phrases already occupying that slot in their minds. And they especially don’t think about how body language can reflect characterization, because really, how much characterization do you get out of a shrug or a sigh or a smile?

But if you stop to think for a minute, body language is about the whole body. It’s not just a couple of gestures; it’s about how individuals move and stand and use every single part of themselves, from hair to toes. People slouch and slump and stiffen; they cough and swallow visibly and sneeze; they tense up, relax, turn red, go pale. Sometimes, the body language is under their control (as with raising her chin or crossing his legs); other times, it isn’t (few people can control their blush reflex). But no matter what else is happening, every single person in the scene is doing something with his or her body (unless they’re dead, and sometimes, even then).

So how do you get at all that stuff, if you’re not used to thinking about it this way?

Well, I suggest beginning with what you have to work with, i.e., what are all the various parts of a body, and what can be done with or to them?

Starting with the head, there’s hair, eyes, eyebrows, ears, nose, cheeks, forehead, mouth, teeth, tongue, lips…and then there are things that go on the head: hats and scarves, eyeglasses and monocles, earrings, nose rings, tiaras, necklaces. And that’s just the head, and I didn’t even try for a total and complete inventory.

So what can a person do with all these bits and pieces? Hair: comb one’s fingers through it, twist it (if it’s long enough), scratch at it (front, back, top, or sides), pull at it (or even pull out a bit of it), braid it (again, if it’s long enough), stroke or smooth it into place, toss it, shake it, hide behind it. Eyes: widen, narrow, squint, flick in one direction or another, close, blink, wink, rub at, tear up, roll, stare intently, glaze over. Eyebrows: raise one or both, bring or draw together, lower, wiggle. Hat: take off, tip, raise, put on, push back/forward, scratch under, use as fan…

You get the point. Each and every part of the body has multiple motions that it can make, and multiple things that can be done to or with it in combination with other parts. Every one of those movements can be used to indicate a feeling, a reaction, or a thought. You can add even more information by describing the way in which those motions are made; “slowly winding a lock of hair around a finger” gives a different impression from “madly winding and unwinding a lock of hair around a finger.”

Some bits of body language are involuntary, like blushing or shivering, but most of them are habits or expressions of an individual’s personality. So the next question is, what is each of the characters like? Who they are affects how they act and react on multiple levels. The guy who reacts aggressively to any criticism may consciously be making a fist, but narrowing his eyes and tightening his lips out of habit, and turning red because of his involuntary physical reaction to becoming angry. The more thoughtful character next to him, who’s a bit more controlled but just as angry, may do the same narrowing of his eyes, but without the red face, and his conscious physical response may be to tap a finger against his lips instead of making a fist.

Habits, in particular, can tell the reader something about both the character’s personality and the character’s past (the habit had to come from somewhere). Whether it’s the little dip and swing of the character’s head whenever she turns it (obviously, she used to wear her hair long and loose, and hasn’t yet lost the habitual motion she needed to toss it over her shoulder as she turns), or the way he half-reaches for his breast pocket every few minutes but stops midway (gave up smoking recently, didn’t he?), little non-standard habitual movements can make the characters feel more like real individuals than like standard roles (The Hero, The Ingénue, The Sidekick, The Comic Relief). Even characters who make a point of not showing emotional reactions can have habits that betray them in small, unconscious ways.

Obviously, the writer does not need or want to describe every twitch and wiggle that every character makes. And there’s certainly a place for simplified body-language-as-punctuation code like “he smiled” or “she shrugged.” But if all you’re using are the compressed code phrases, you might want to take another look for places where you can take things one step deeper by describing the narrow eyes, tight lips, and slowly tapping finger instead of saying “he looked angry.”

14 Comments
  1. When I was writing the Cynthia stories, most of whose characters were Greek, I had to use phrases like “shook his head ‘yes'” and “shook his head ‘no'”, because the Greek gestures are the opposite of the Western ones … and got really irritated whenever some copy-editor tried to change “shook his head ‘yes'” to “nodded.” In the penultimate story I had a Roman, the consul Gaius Duilius Nepos in fact, “shaking his head ‘no’ in the Roman fashion, the opposite of the Hellenic.” (But the darned copy-editor deleted the last phrase and I didn’t catch it in time. 🙁 )

  2. This is a problem with my own writing. “Smiling” is too close to the only body language my characters use, and I use it too often.

    At least it’s something that will be relatively easy to fix… I hope.

  3. Very good entry. Sometimes it’s hard for me to describe how a character is gesturing, so I feel like the reader will not know what I mean. I try to make a point to describe the gesture I see in my mind’s eye as best I can!

  4. It has its uses as substitutes for “he said”, too. But there you want it to pull double duty.

  5. Deep Lurker frowned. “Hmm, I do use smiling too much”, Deep thought. “Well, at least when mentioning that weakness, I get to use a different term. Imagine being displeased about frowning.”

  6. That’s quite the list to think about … *brain fog*

  7. For me, seeing characters gesturing comes fairly easy, unless the action is particularly complicated and can’t be summarized. It goes with their tone and their attitude.

    Setting, on the other hand… I find it hard to “see” that. When to include it? When not to? Is it even important? What details would be important? A lot of modern young adult novels seem to gloss over setting except in a vague sense (a school setting, for instance, but nothing is shown beyond what the characters are interacting with—a desk, a pencil, the teachers; the school itself, details about the school aren’t described), because the setting is the tool of the plot. Whereas in older works of literature, there’s a ton of setting, and it brings symbolism along for the ride, too — how does one manage and control that? How does setting expand itself beyond the immediate demands of the plot?

    I guess for me the bridge between these disparate subjects is that both gestures and setting are “background” events that suggest things rather than say them outright; whereas characters’ speech and thoughts are “foreground” events. And I suppose this subject has been on my mind for a while, I wanted to get it out there.

  8. Heh. I ran into a reader once who hated those sorts of indirect descriptive tags, because she was unable to interpret what emotion or information was supposed to be being conveyed by them. Like being face-blind, but in the medium of the written word… very strange.

    Things like “He looked angry”, however, put her on firm ground, and she was happier. She could go from the abstract “anger” to an internal mental picture of what the expression was, but not from a description of the expression to the emotion.

    Ta, L.

  9. @LMB
    Actually not all that strange, your reader was probably autistic and probably is equally ‘face-blind’ in RL. You might not have noticed because adult autistics have had years to figure out how to decipher body language. But because that knowledge is ‘deciphered’ and ‘studied’ there tend to be random gaps in their understanding and the more indidrect clues tend to be the last learned. I acutally leared how to read body language from reading discriptive fiction because only the important twitches and gestures get written down.

    Actually the average reader (as opposed to bookworms) can have a simular problem with indirect clues. MANY people read slow enough that a novel takes them an entire month. Its not uncommon for slower readers to miss (or intentionally skim/skip) the implications of indirect clues. If your character’s emotions is important to the plot it is a good idea to use direct clues along with the indirect.
    “It’s not you I’m angry at, he sighed”

  10. Great post! It is def important not to repeat the same body language all the time. Thanks for the tips.

  11. Different characters have different physical reactions. Anger makes some the Squire red-faced, makes McTurk cold and white, makes Peter dangerously soft-spoken. This can be great if the character has been presented well enough that the reader knows what he’s probably feeling, and if it can be described neatly.

    But too much detail about the physiology can require interpreting, even if the reader would react non-autistically if he saw it in person. And with a POV character, it can lose identification if the preader happens to feel her own anger in a different way.

  12. Thank you for this – I’m in the middle of a YA MS and my characters have gotten bogged down with shrugs and eyebrow raises. I will bookmark this page and start making more mental notes about how people move.
    Thanks so much!

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