Just like real life people, fictional characters have body language, or they should. Better writers work to incorporate a wide variety. However, according to Elizabeth Sims in her excellent Writer’s Digest article “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great,” great writers do more with body language. They use it to deepen characterization.
Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.
I’ve read novels in the past that incorporate body language. Most stories do. These books I’m referring to had characters that turned or frowned or stared at the ground or raised their eyebrow. Nothing wrong with those emotional cues. Except that every character did every one of them at some point in the story, while doing few others.
Obviously there are some generic actions that we humans do–we nod, shake our head, cross our legs. It’s not wrong to include those in a novel when appropriate, but characters, if they are to seem real, need to have their own special mix of activities.
Giving each person something unique to do or some unique blend of body movements moves a story out of the so-so pile. It makes each character seem like a living, breathing soul instead of a cardboard cut-out of a person.
From “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great”:
The best authors use body language in their narratives. Odd thing is, I have never once heard an agent or editor comment on my (or any author’s) use of body language, and I think that’s because it goes by so smoothly it’s almost unnoticed. Yet it absolutely gives texture and depth to your work. When it’s missing, fiction feels flat. (emphasis mine)
But according to Ms. Sims, there is something in the use of body language that will move a story up a notch: actions that deepen characterization.
Anyone can walk to the podium, but only certain people strut or parade. Completely different people shuffle, and still others prance.
The first step in creating body language that characterizes, then, is to select appropriate verbs, especially when the action is something shared by others. How a character does what everyone else does can set him apart.
A second way of stretching body language so that it adds to characterization is to find a telling detail that reveals the character’s emotional state.
Some athletes, after a good play, pound their chest. Others cross their arms and smirk or jog back to their position while staring at the opponent. Still others clap or point or slap the side of their head. The key is to find the specific detail that sets your character apart, given the personality you’ve provided him with and the situation you’ve put him in.
Which brings up the third point. Give your character some gesture that is unique to him. What can he possibly do that no one else in your story will do?
To help a novelist create meaningful character body language, Ms. Sims suggests the following:
Begin by reading up on body language. You’ll find that two things are at the root of all of it: anxiety (or lack thereof) and hidden desires. Dwell inside your characters and sense how they feel in any given situation.
One source to use if you’re interested in doing some research is the article on body language posted at businessballs.com.
Of course another great way to research is to plant yourself at the airport or library or Starbuck’s and people watch, with notebook in hand.
Here’s a short exercise to illustrate the use of body language in fiction.
- Ms. Author scuttled into the coffee shop and found a corner seat. She placed her bag in her lap and hugged it to her a moment as she watched the spindly, gray-haired gentlemen at the counter order his drink. When he moved off, she relaxed back into her seat and opened her bag wide enough to slip out her iPad. Scooting her chair closer to the table, she placed the tablet in front of her, then withdrew a soft cloth from her pocket. She removed the electronic device from its case. Gently at first she wiped the screen as if dusting priceless china.
Question: what can a reader learn about Ms. Author from her body language? Is she confident, bold, self-assured, timid, uncertain, hesitant? How would you characterize her based on her body language? Can you think of other actions that might reinforce her character?