Use Body Language to Characterise


There’s one thing that writers don’t use to their advantage as much as they should, and that’s body language.
Sometimes, it’s not what characters say that catches the reader’s attention, but how they react to others and the situations around them. Little things like facial expressions, gestures, ticks, movements and posture all convey silent communication; they help the reader understand and interpret what characters are really thinking and feeling.
Writers are good at telling us what the characters looks like, what they wear and what the characters say, but how they act and react to other characters and what goes on around them is rarely exploited. We might see snippets of movements between dialogue, known as narrative “beats”, but often what we get are stock gestures like licking of lips, tilting the head, hands in pockets, running hands through hair, smoothing of ties and so on. This doesn’t give the reader much depth or character insight.
Body language should allow the writer to show rather than tell. So without the need for dialogue, we can perceive a character’s mood or how they feel just from how they move and the carry themselves. Not only that, but it can reveal subtle characteristics and behaviour.
Rather than the stock gestures favoured by writers, use body language to your advantage to add depth to those narrative beats between dialogue. What does the character’s eyes show - how do they look at someone or something? What pallor is their skin? What are they doing with their hands? Are they shuffling on their feet, or completely rigid? Are their shoulders rounded, slouched or stiff? Is their expression soft, sharp or darkened?
Observe people during conversations and you’ll see how their expressions and bodies change and react throughout. They do a lot of pointing, hand waving and nodding and their facial expressions change constantly. Sometimes they have little ticks. How often have you seen someone rubbing their thighs as though to get rid of excess moisture on their palms? This is usually associated with nervousness. Or what about the wringing of hands? This ‘hand washing’ movement shows a degree of anxiety. If someone shrugs their head in a way that their shoulders rise up, like they’ve heard a loud bang, it means they feel submissive or threatened. A head that looks down is very submissive, or even frightened. There are so many ways you can show these characteristics, without the need for empty or clichéd gestures.
Body language is also useful during descriptions to show your character’s emotions and mood. How they move and react will show the reader the character’s demeanour, rather than telling them. It makes the descriptions more interesting, for example:
The loud voices pressed against her. She stopped for a moment and for the longest time her eyes remained closed; clamped shut against the noise outside her mind. She rubbed her fingertips together, and as the calm cloud descended, her shoulders dropped as though placated against the hiss.
From this description, the closed eyes and the rubbing of fingertips shows the reader this person is overwhelmed by the noise around her, perhaps making her nervous, and she takes a moment to compose herself, shown by the relaxed shoulders. The character’s mood and reactions to the noise are shown through her body language.
Just remember to avoid repetitive or stock gestures. Not every character will scowl or clench their fists when angry, (which is, itself, very clichéd), or stomp their feet. Every character will be different in the way they express themselves. The most effective body language signals to the reader are subtle ones.
Try not to overdo things; just like character descriptions, the reader doesn’t need to know the character’s inside leg measurement or other meaningless information. They just need little descriptive gems from time to time to add some depth to the emotions and feelings of characters, to make them real enough to your reader.
Remember, body language can:

  • Characterise by providing subtle insight to emotions, mood and feelings.
  • Add depth to descriptions.
  • Provide added depth to narrative beats.
  • Show characteristics and behaviour.

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