Written by JJ Barnes
Body language is a large part of how your characters will communicate with one another. You need your story to move forward, and character interaction is a big part of that. When we communicate with one another, we use Body Language. Even if your story is designed to be read, not viewed, you still need to include Body Language. I’ll be writing about how to write it into your story.
Show Don’t Tell
Show don’t tell is an important part of how to communicate your character’s thoughts and feelings to your audience. It allows your audience to feel part of the character’s interiority and draws them into the story. Show don’t tell makes your story and characters feel more real.
Body Language is a strong way to show not tell what your character is feeling. For instance, if you tell your readers your character is angry then they will understand what that emotion is. But, it won’t feel inclusive of your reader, and it makes for dry reading. By showing their body language, not telling the emotion, you pull your audience in.
How To Show Body Language
If your character is angry, describe what their body does. Describe them clenching their fists, the hot feeling in their head, describe how they shake trying to stop themselves shouting. Their Body Language communicates to both the other characters and your audience the emotion they are experiencing.
Use Body Language to avoid telling your audience, or having your character tell others, what they’re feeling. So many emotions are pushed down, and we try to keep them private. The same is true of your characters. You show their emotional responses through the way their body behaves.
Whether they have to force themselves not to communicate because it’s socially inappropriate or dangerous, they still have those feelings. Your audience will feel part of that character’s emotional process by being allowed into what they aren’t able to express out loud. It’s their own personal world of emotion, and your reader is part of it.
Interpreting The Body Language Of Others
As well as your POV Character’s emotions, you can have them interpret the body language of other characters.
All your characters are the Protagonist of their own story, so their interiority is just as rich and complex, you just don’t get to explore it. However, just as your POV character will let their emotional truth seep out and your readers will see it, others will let it out and your character will see it. We all try interpret what other people are feeling and thinking aside from what they’re communicating directly.
When your POV character witnesses the Body Language of others, you won’t describe their unseen physical reactions. You can’t say they feel hot inside or the unseen movements. But you can describe they seem angry by the way their voice is oddly steady and controlled. The way they’re picking their finger nails or clenching their fist. Just as your POV character will interpret that rage through the Body Language, your audience will be right there with them. And then your character can explore the reasons why that may be in their internal monologue.
Wrong Interpretation Of Body Language
Whilst you can make it absolutely clear to your audience what your POV character’s feelings are, interpreting the Body Language of others can be wrong. Your character can either interpret it wrong or find that it’s unclear and that can motivate them to try to investigate further. It throws scene level conflict between characters who want to find one another’s truths.
Equally so, if any of your other characters misinterpret your POV character’s feelings based on their Body Language, conflict can arise from that too. Your reader will understand what they’re feeling and why, but others might not.
Body Language is not always a perfect science, and because we all respond physically to different things for different reasons, it’s easy to be wrong. I will respond by flinching if there’s a loud noise, others won’t. Some will lash out when they’re afraid, others become insular. Body Language is not controlled communication in the way spoken words are, and it can be a fascinating topic to explore.
Kinds Of Body Language
Whether the Body Language you write is directly shown to your audience, or interpreted by characters, include it for all different emotions. Whilst these might be the typical responses that humans have to emotions, they might not be consistent between characters and will present in different extremes depending on personality.
The Body Language of happiness will be in smiles and laughter, a bounce in the step, and a relaxed open body. Happy people are not tense, their limbs are loose and they will lean back in their seats.
Distress Or Fear
For distress and fear, people are more likely to ball up as much as possible. Not necessarily in the foetal position, but holding their own arms tightly and hunching down to make themselves a smaller target. They might cross their arms over their front as a shield, or rub at their neck or hands where tension gathers.
Superiority and Inferiority
A character who feels dominant and superior will stand tall, keep their arms open, perhaps a foot up on a chair. They want to present a relaxed and confident image, whilst looming large to remind their counterpart that they’re in the inferior position.
In turn, a character who feels inferior and submissive will present as smaller, smiling agreeably but not with joy. The kind of smile that doesn’t reach the eyes.
Feelings of attraction and sexual arousal can be reciprocated or not, and it will impact how they present. For mutual attraction, characters will mirror one another’s Body Language subconsciously. It demonstrates a compatibility and openness to one another. There might be hair touching, leaning forwards, and pupil dilation.
However, when one character is communicating physical attraction through their flirty Body Language, and the other character is not reciprocating things will change. The flirty character might be confident and sexually aggressive, so you can mix dominant Body Language in.
The other character could be oblivious, so they simply don’t mirror or express attraction in the same way, their Body Language communicating their own feelings. Or they could be wary, perhaps a partner is waiting for them and they need a polite way to escape. The Body Language of somebody not wishing to flirt conflicting with someone who does will create a lot of tension.
A hostile character will be tense and sharp. They’ll use jabbing fingers and a deeper voice to their natural voice. Their eyes will flash and they will be more likely to lean in to appear dominant and confident, even if they’re actually scared. Hostility can be masked by efforts to be polite, with forced smiles and polite hand shakes, but the grip will be tight and the smile won’t reach the eyes. There’s pushed down anger fighting to come out.
Improve The Reading Experience With Body Language
By making effort to represent Body Language in your story, you’ll massively improve your readers experience. Characters will feel more human and more interesting, and that will make them more emotionally available to your audience. The more your readers invest in your characters, the more they’ll invest in your story.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose