Sunday, October 10, 2010

Writing Tip: Use of Body Language

This week's topic is Writing Tips, and my tip is how and why to add body language into your writing. When done skillfully, your readers will find your characters are more interesting and your overall writing is more believable. Body language (or nonverbal communication), paired with a character's words (verbal communication) and thoughts, adds another layer to that character's personality. In essence, it helps bring the character to life in the mind of the reader.

Does a character's body language agree or disagree with what he's saying?

As a Speech Communication/Broadcast major and an actor, I'm always paying attention to how people's posture, gestures, eye movements, and facial expressions portray what they're REALLY thinking at any given moment. Sometimes their body language goes along with what they're saying. For example, a character yawns and the reader understands that he is bored or tired. On the flip side, certain movements can contradict what a character is saying. Some signs of dishonesty include: averting one's gaze, touching one's face, biting one's lower lip, blushing, fidgeting, twitching, scuffling feet, twirling one's hair, scratching, blinking (either more or less than normal), etc. As a reader, I think it's fun to try and figure out, based on what the author gives me, whether or not a character is being honest.

What movements are believable and interesting?

If a character doesn't care, she might shrug or turn her back on someone else. If a character is excited, he might actually jump a little and his voice might get louder. You can also think of movements that aren't quite as common (or cliche). Perhaps the character is in a windstorm and the entire time her boyfriend is breaking up with her, she's preoccupied with the futile task of keeping her hair looking nice. (Hmm, I kinda like that scene. Lots of intrigue. Might have to use it someday! LOL) Or think of other ways to describe some of the more common body language. Maybe a smile can be described as a wry grin? A sexy smirk? A wolfish sneer?

When deciding what body language to use for a character, there are many things to consider so it comes across as believable. Here are a few things to get you thinking along these lines:

1. Gender. If your 40 year -old male character flutters his eyelashes, he will come across as feminine. How characters sit, stand, and walk can also suggest that they're masculine or feminine. Be careful not to go over the top, though. For example, if your male character is always grunting, spitting, and grabbing his crotch, you need to ask yourself if guys REALLY do that stuff, at least so often.
2. Age. Younger people typically express themselves more enthusiastically and with less inhibition. For example, a three year-old wouldn't think twice about jumping up and down and shouting, "I gotta pee!" for the whole restaurant to hear, whereas an adult would probably (hopefully) excuse him- or herself discreetly.
3. Attire. A woman in stilettos will trudge through the woods with more difficulty than one in hiking boots. Conversely, a woman who's used to wearing stilettos will be more graceful in them at the ball than a girl who's only ever worn hiking boots.

Of course, this is just a short list, but basically you'll need to know your characters well to keep their body language believable.

How can body language help a writer "Show, Don't Tell"?
Adding body language is a great way to obey the "Show, Don't Tell" maxim.

a) "Please don't go," Bertha says sadly. (Telling)
b) Bertha wipes the tears off her face. "Please don't go." (Showing)

a) Casey was infuriated. (Telling)
b) Casey clenched his hands into fists and his face turned crimson. (Showing)

a) Penelope wasn't happy to see fried chicken on her dinner plate. (Telling)
b) Penelope took one look at the fried chicken on her plate and hurled it across the kitchen. (Showing)

In the above examples, the same (or at least very similar) information is being shared, yet the second examples (b) are more interesting and offer new insight into the character.

Does your character have a signature move?
In addition to weaving body language into your writing, you might want to invent a signature movement for your character.

I remember when one of my friends told me he'd seen me standing in the parking lot from his dorm room some fifteen stories high. My boyfriend and I had just been in a wreck and the emergency personnel was checking out my boyfriend to make sure he was okay. My friend could tell it was me way down there because of the way I held my right arm straight down and grasped my right forearm with my left hand. It's what I always did whenever I was nervous about something, he'd said. I'd never noticed it before then, but he was right. It's one of my signature poses, and if a writer were to write a story about me, he or she'd want to describe the position of my arms when my character is nervous.

Maybe your character, a 16 year-old female cheerleader, is always smacking her gum. Maybe your newly turned vampire is constantly touching his fangs. Perhaps your Victorian-era duchess is prone to giggling when she's in the presence of her crush. Maybe your 800 year-old alien blinks his single eye verrrrrry slowly when he's trying to comprehend English, or your grandmother character tends to dab her nose with her deceased husband's handkerchief when she's thinking of him (her late husband, not the alien).

Giving your characters signature movements is a great way to help your readers get to know them.

What are some easy and effective ways to fine-tune your character's body language?

Sure, there are many books you can read to learn more about kinesics, the study of body language. But even if you just observe people in their natural settings, you'll see what kind of movements they do and under what circumstances. Then you can transfer those gestures and movements into your writing.

You can also pay attention to a talented actor in a movie or on a TV show. Some movie characters that are excellent examples of how body language can help develop a character are: Cap'n Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (his walk), Bridget in Bridget Jones' Diary (her fidgeting), Kevin McCallister in Home Alone (his scream-face), James Bond in various Bond movies (his posture and poise), and Shrek in Shrek (his charmingly bashful smile).

A final note
Now that I've hopefully got you thinking of ways you can weave body language into your writing, make sure you use it sparingly so it isn't too overbearing. A good way to check is to read your scene out loud or have someone else read it for you. Remember, integrating physical movements into your writing is meant to add to what's being said or thought, not take attention away from what's being said or thought. Writing is something you'll get better at the more you practice, and using body language is a great method to get your readers into your story.


Anonymous said...

Love this post. But I have a confession to make. I am really horrible with eye contact that lasts longer than 3 seconds, lol, it just... freaks me out. So I am constantly averting my eyes and crossing my arms or tucking my hair behind my ears while looking at things around me and the person I'm holding a conversation with for a distraction of sorts. Which a lot of times if someone did this while I was trying to hold a decent conversation with them I'd think either they were searcing for a way out of the conversation or they were trying to come up with a more believable answer or even lieing about something. Got me in so much trouble as a kid when I went to school and teachers or the principle wanted to speak to me about something I may or may not have done.

How odd and inconovinent is that. lol.

TinaFerraro said...

Thank you so much for this, Wendy! Very inspiring!

jeff7salter said...

Excellent column!
This area has always fascinated me (as an H.R. interview for many years), and especially since I began writing novel manuscripts just four years ago.
In my writing, I've tended to over-use a few general mannerisms [way too many 'shrugs' and 'sighs' for example] and only in the last couple of manuscripts have I attempted to use what you call 'signature' mannerisms.
A friend shared with me a book by Desmond Morris (originally called Man-Watching, but newest edition is called People Watching). It's rather dated, but it gives a lot of good ideas writers can use.
He also has a lot of international stuff (which I've not used so far) because certain gestures mean different things in different cultures.
Thanks for a great article.

Wendy Toliver said...

Aw, Jessica. Thanks for sharing. It's so interesting how body language can be misinterpreted, as yours oftentimes is.

Thanks Tina!

And Jeff, thanks for your insights and for the book recommendation. Thanks also for bringing up that different cultures have different interpretations of certain body lang. We might not be able to put our finger on it, but I do think as we mature as writers, we stop using the cliched nonverbal communication as much as we used to. I notice a whole lot of sighs in books, and it brings me out of the story b/c I doubt that real people would sigh so much.

Rachel Harris said...

Wendy, What an AWESOME post!

It was funny to see your name listed at the bottom--I was thinking about characterization today and kept coming back to Lifted when doing so (in particular the whole bike/train scene).

Anyway, thank you so much for sharing. I knew a lot of this information but I loved having it reinforced. Also, I have been creating a list of strong verbs and better descriptions for emotions, so I was able to add some of your examples--thanks for that :-)

Have a great weekend

Wendy Toliver said...

Hi Rachel, thanks so much for commenting! And what a pleasant surprise that you've been reading Lifted. I loved writing that scene you referred to. Thanks again!

Bidisha said...

Very interesting and useful post. Thanks, wendy!

B. A. Binns said...

I really enjoyed, and need, this post. Body language is one of my weaknesses with my writing. Maybe because I really don't observe people, I'm naturally shy and could easily live on a desert island. Thanks for this, and I'm working on being more observant and using more body languagei n my writing.

Wendy Toliver said...

Bee and B.A. Binns, glad you found this helpful!

Jeanine Spikes said...

Thanks, Wendy. Body language certainly adds depth to the writing and this is a great jumping off point. I'm passing this link on to my local writing group, too. Looking forward to the other posts this week!

Heather R. Holden said...

Great post--so many helpful tips! As a writer, I have so much fun adding body language to my writing, but I know that I do go overboard sometimes. (There'll be times where I look over a chapter and say, "Did my character just shrug 16 times in this scene? Yes, yes he did." *head-desk*)

Annette Blair said...

Wendy, I enjoyed your post so much. Sometimes we need to be reminded not to take the easy route. Since I'm in revisions now, at the final point were I read my book out loud to myself, I'm going to pay particular attention to how my characters move.

Annette Blair, waving to Marley

nymfaux said...

Great Post Wendy!!! I always love this kind of thing and find it so interesting!!!

Wendy Toliver said...

Hi Jeanine, glad you found it helpful and thanks for passing it along to your friends!

Heather H, we all go a little overboard sometimes. It's fun to go back thru our MSS and see where we can add, delete, or enhance our character's nonverbal communications.

Annette, that's great! And I'll wave to Marley too, LOL!

nymfaux, glad you found it worthwhile! Thanks for commenting! :)

stephhale said...

These are amazing tips, Wendy. Thanks so much! :)

nymfaux said...

@Wendy!!!--VERY worthwhile(ALWAYS!!!!)--I've also been thinking about how I like to not just observe people's mannerisms, but other ways I would describe them--especially color--it seems so easy to fall back on sea blue or sky blue eyes and that kind of thing, so I try to think of how I would describe it if it were the person in front of me or the one on tv, instead of just a character in my head.

Heather Davis said...

Great job, Wendy! Your tips are awesome. ;)


Bast said...

Great post! I'm always thinking about body language. I tend to give each of my characters a signiture move too -- nothing too strange, but each of us has things that we do. I have one character who constantly touches her lips (kinda modeled after Angelina Jolie I guess). Actually, for that character, body language becomes very important because she has a split personality (not the correct term) and each of her personalities carries themselves differently. Another character runs his hand through his hair when he's nervous.