How to Use Kinesics (Body Language) to Characterise
We all know that description plays a major part in fiction writing, which is used to balance the narrative and dialogue, but there is another essential element of it that uses non-verbal movement – body language and gestures. This is also known as kinesics.
It’s said that 93% of conversation is non-verbal (Albert Mehrabrian, Silent Messages, published 1971), and that is because we often use our body to communicate, even when there are no words being spoken, such as facial, movements and hand gestures that show sentiment or feeling. Expressions – and their associated movements - often convey a person’s emotions. Body postures can also show the inner feelings of someone – whether they are stiff and awkward, or relaxed and happy.
This kind of description is overlooked by many writers and that’s because it’s something they don’t really think too much about. But writing isn’t just about writing – it’s about observation. So when you see people engaged in conversation, there is more going on beneath the surface than you realise. Their body language will tell you more about what is not being said than what is actually being said.
So in any story, writers use body language and gestures – kinesics – to show more than is actually being said; it’s visual, and readers love visual prompts, but body language should be written in the context of the narrative; it has to be consistent with the scene and what you want to convey.
In dialogue, body language shows the reader what the words cannot, since dialogue is telling rather than showing. It adds depth to those seemingly unimportant moments; it shows us true emotional states beneath the words that are spoken. These visual prompts work well to show the reader how one character may really feel, and they are often inserted with beats between the dialogue, for example:
‘I knew this would happen...’ The lines across her forehead deepened and she swallowed hard. ‘I shouldn’t have let him go.’
His shoulders rose like a burgeoning shadow. ‘I don’t think for one minute you cared. You’re just out for yourself. ’ His eyes narrowed. ‘But you’ve been found out...’
The first example shows the woman’s expression deepening with a furrow, followed by swallowing hard, which shows her anxiety and fear. The second example uses the rise of the man’s shoulders to show slight anger and the narrowing of the eyes is often a sign of disbelief or suspicion.
These subtle snippets help to characterise because they show characteristic behaviours we all recognise.
In descriptive moments, writers show body language to underscore the true emotions or feelings of a character and to compliment the description. Again, it is another way of adding depth, and readers will appreciate visual prompts, for example:
He peered around the wall and saw the crowd. He sucked in a deep breath to calm the torrent in his chest. He fiddled with his tie as he tried to remember his speech...
She waited at the entrance, breath caught in her throat, as she wrung her hands as though washing away imaginary dirt, her head low.
In the first example the man sucks in a breath and then fidgets with his tie. These are signs of nerves and anxiety; the body gives away clues without even having to say a word. In the second example, the movement of the woman’s hands suggests some inner emotional turmoil, while the act of hanging the head low is passive stance, or perhaps a submissive one. Again, although subtle, it helps to reveal character and adds complexity to characterisation.
The use of body language is an effective way of controverting what a character is actually saying. They may say one thing, but their body language says another and often their emotions give them away. It is a clever way to subvert emotions that are implied by feelings that are really visible.
Crossing arms is a defensive stance. Tapping of fingers on something is generally a sign of annoyance. Hands on hips can signify all sorts, within the context of the narrative – such as defiance, indifference or even boredom. Some people play with their hair. Some people scratch their ears or nose. Some people cross their legs when they’re annoyed and often bob their foot up and down to show it. Some people bite their lip when they’re nervous. We often arch our eyebrows as a sign of curiosity or incredulity. We stiffen our bodies to show we’re not intimidated, or we shrink back if we are. The list is endless.
Body language doesn’t have to be over the top, so don’t overwhelm the story, otherwise you will overburden the narrative and it will slow the story down. Kinesics works because it’s subtle. It shows actions underscoring emotions, and helps to show rather than tell. So next time you write dialogue or description, don’t forget kinesics:
- Body posture
- Facial expressions
- General movement
Next week: Is style the same as voice?