Give Your Protagonist More than Just Words – Part 2

Part 1 looked at the how your character’s inner thoughts (or inner dialogue) can help with characterisation, and ways that it can deepen the narrative, but in addition to that, writers also use visual prompts – things like gestures and body language - to give their protagonist more than just words.

A lot our communication is nonverbal – we gesticulate, we move our bodies, and our facial expressions show sentiment, mood or emotion. We easily pick up on those subtle movements and we interpret them, or “read” that person. In fiction, your characters are no different. Writers can show a lot about a character without him or her having to say a word.

Body language covers a large area – everything from gestures, posture, ticks, facial movements, and other movement not associated with gestures. But gestures are the one thing we all do and understand – it helps us express ourselves and reinforces what we say. For instance, someone might show open palms as they talk, which is often symbolises trust, or sometimes clasped hands. Some people can be very animated with their hands, while others might be reserved. Some people nod a lot, or they express surprise by touching their own faces and necks.

What each gesture means is down to the reader’s interpretation, or how the writer wants the reader to perceive the characters. Gestures are unique to each individual. So even if your character isn’t saying anything, their gestures will do that for them.

Ticks are involuntary or unconscious repetitive movements, like blinking rapidly, licking of lips, hand rubbing, scratching, face touching and so on. It’s possible to show the reader the emotional state of your character with ticks, which might increase if they are feeling anxious, fearful or excited. Some ticks can form as part of obsessive compulsive disorders.

If your character has a specific tick, the reader will notice, and if that becomes more noticeable during certain scenes, they will understand what the character is feeling without the need to be told.

Like ticks, facial expressions provide the reader with a lot of information about your character, even if the character isn’t engaged in dialogue. Your character’s face is just as expressive as what he or she says, but it’s often underused by writers. They tend to concentrate on gestures and forget that the face can show the reader what’s going on beneath the surface.  A subtle downward glance, a slow close of the eyes, a twitch of the eye, a solid, unbroken stare – they all show the reader what your character is feeling. They are a great way to express hidden emotion and heighten characterisation.

Movements not associated with gestures are things like toying with the hair, which could mean that person is bored or not interested, or drumming fingers or foot tapping, which might show irritability or impatience. These types of movements are a good way to break up dialogue and give the reader some descriptive glimpses into what your character might actually be feeling, all without having to explain it.

Deliberate, repetitive gestures are those which the writer uses to reinforce characterisation. You might have a character that always brushes his top lip with a finger while deep in thought. This is something the reader will notice. Or maybe there’s a character who constantly brushes away imaginary crumbs from her clothes. When they do it often enough, it’s recognised as a characteristic, but it’s done in such a subtle way that they blend smoothly into the narrative.

There is, of course, a danger that you can overuse body language and gestures and repeat them too much. That’s when they become annoying to the reader. It requires a balance – showing the reader a character’s emotions, feelings or inner thoughts through gestures, movements, facial expressions and so on without it being too intrusive.

Every writer has their own ‘go to’ stock gestures, like pursing of lips, cocking/tilting heads or gripping of shoulders/arms etc. To avoid this, it’s worth going through your story to identify the ones you use most, and instead use different gestures and movements.

Don’t create body language where there’s no need for any, for instance, where the dialogue has made clear a character’s mood, emotional state or that they’ve  acted in a certain way, otherwise it’s repetition and overkill. So show, don’t tell. Let your character’s body language do all the talking – show their characteristics, emotions and their mood without them saying a word.



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