Characterisation & Body Language
Continuing the theme of characterisation, body language is often overlooked when dealing with characters, yet the nuances of body language can play an important role in conveying a real, believable character.
Gestures offer the reader a glimpse into your character’s thoughts without the need for interior dialogue. Watch someone talking, and it’s likely his or her hands and head will be moving as they speak. Their movements are reinforcing what they’re saying.
When we listen to someone talking, we give away what we’re thinking by body language; propped finger against the temple, leaning on elbows, leaning on the hands while supporting the head, or sitting bolt upright. All these subtle gestures can tell us more about the inner thoughts of our characters.
Hands and fingers, arms and legs.
If you point your finger at someone, this is generally seen as a threat. The finger acts like a weapon, usually a jabbing motion when people argue, and that’s a perceived act of aggression with some people, so a character that does that is either irritated or causing irritation to another character.
Open palms can be another useful way of conveying your character. This gesture is a sign of honesty and openness. So when someone talks with a gesture of open palms you know they are being honest or open with what they are saying. Clenched fists are the opposite – they’re a sign of irritation and aggression.
We all know that not looking into someone’s eyes when talking denotes someone who may not be telling the truth. Eye contact is very important in building trust. Do your characters do this? Subtle eye movements can say so much with your characters without them having to utter a word. Of course, it’s not just eyes. Nose scratching, ear pulling, playing with earrings and hair fiddling are all subtle body gestures which denote to the reader a sense of mood or occasion.
Arms and legs play an important role too. Crossed arms and legs act like barriers; they are defensive gestures, the body’s way of protecting itself from perceived threats. People do it without even realising. Sometimes it’s a way of stating a character’s assertion over another by the way they sit. A man who sits with legs open is a confident character, perhaps arrogant. Someone who sits with knees locked together is someone who is nervous or anxious.
The eyes tell quite a story. We read people by their eyes. Not being able to see someone’s eyes can make an innocent situation turn into an intimidating one. Think of someone wearing dark or reflective lens sunglasses and imagine trying to have a conversation with them. It’s hard because you can’t see their eyes and therefore part of the facial picture is missing when your brain tries to translate their facial movements. If a scarf covers part of the face, it’s hard to read facial movements – is that person smiling or grimacing? Frowning or angry?
Does your character frown a lot? If so, he or she will have deep frown lines. Do they purse their lips when they think? Again, tell tale lines will line their top lip. Head tilting and eyebrow raising are all subtle body language gestures that could have different connotations with your characters, but all give your characters that little bit extra.
Characters should be like real people when it comes to fiddling with things. Earrings, hair, moustaches/beards, glasses, cigarettes and so on. Again all these play an important part in helping the reader decipher your characters. Give them habits.
Maybe you have a character who constantly twirls her hair or one that has to keep pushing his glasses up from the end of his nose, or perhaps putting the frame in his mouth when he thinks. Moustache or beard rubbing is a gesture used when thinking deeply. Lighting a cigarette could be interpreted as a way of mulling things over, a way to kill nerves perhaps...it’s up to you how you make your characters act and react.
Characters can also use walking sticks or frames, umbrellas, bags etc, for defensive or offensive means or as a perceived shield.
We all do this: flicking away imaginary crumbs, brushing down clothes with the hand, rubbing the leg if nervous, nail biting or gazing at nails as a sign of boredom, staring at the ceiling, foot tapping and pencil tapping...this list is endless, and you've probably observed more of these.
The way we move tends to tell people the way we actually feel, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t employ this psychology with your characters. Make them well developed and rounded, so try not to overlook the effectiveness of body language in characterisation.
Next week: POV