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Monday, February 8, 2016

Body Language

I'll be giving a workshop on body language at a conference next year and thought I'd dive into a little of it here. Just out of curiosity... how many of you "people watch"? How much do you pay attention to people and the things they say with their body, not their words?

I've found that body language actually speaks louder than words. (Actions too, obviously, but sometimes it's more subtle than that.) I thought - just for fun - I'd post an old pic from last year with actor and romance cover model Michael Foster. (We took this picture in the makeup and hair room at the show were working on.) Now what does this picture say to you? Don't cheat and look below for what I was thinking/feeling. Take a look and see if you can figure it out before you continue.




For starters, you can tell I'm nervous. I'm not looking at the camera. And... I won't even touch the guy! Yes, my arm is in a cast, but I could've touched HIS arm and I didn't. You can tell he has tremendous confidence and he's used to looking at the camera. The man has no fear! (And really, why should he with that bod! Haha!) He's got his arms around me like I'm a model from one of his cover shoots! I'm embarrassed. You can tell that by my red face and goofy grin. So... did you guess all that?

As writers, we know it's important to cover everything because we want to set a scene. What's the temperature? Are we inside or outside? What's the ambiance? What's happening? Is it loud or quiet? Are other people around? There are a TON of details to get across and limited time to get that info out. Part of all that detail is getting across our character's feelings.

But what if you're in one character's head and need to get across another character's feelings. We show it through body language, right? One of my favorite things is being in someone's point of view (POV) and showing how certain things make them feel by what they do with their body. That way, when I'm in someone else's POV and show that first character using a specific body language, the reader knows exactly what they are feeling...or hiding.

I try to give all my characters little quirks or certain mannerisms specific to them. It's one of the things that helps define them and makes them stand out for the reader.

The other important part of giving characters specific traits is to make sure you use the strongest words possible when moving them around. A quick example... anytime I read a sentence where "someone 'went' to the door..." (or 'went' anywhere for that matter), it makes me stop and think about what would've been a stronger word choice. Sure, the word 'went' works and sometimes maybe it's the strongest choice, but wouldn't you rather see what the character is made of or what they are feeling in that specific moment of opening the door? Maybe she 'glided' to the door. Or he 'stomped' to the door. There are dozens of verbs that can be used to describe what a person might be feeling just by showing how they crossed a room.

Or maybe you've given your character a 'tell.' My heroine, Ellie, in Danger Zone had a huge secret and every time she lied about it (or anything), she spun the ring on her finger. So every time I was in someone else's POV and that character - and the reader - watched Ellie spin her ring, the reader knew she was lying.

The best part of writing body language traits is that we have so much to choose from. Facial expressions, posture, muscle tension, nervous ticks. Just start at the top and work your way down and figure out how many different body language 'tells' or 'quirks' you can come up with.

So... any particular traits that you've noticed about people over the years? Or maybe YOU have a specific trait that's specific to you... Want to share?

7 comments:

Anne Marie Becker said...

What a great picture! And you're right, the body language is very telling.

Way back when I studied to become a counselor, this was one of my favorite (and most enlightening) subjects. You can tell a lot about what a person's thinking and feeling from their body language. And we were taught how to sit with a relatively open stance so that the client would feel comfortable sharing.

Great post!

Dee J. said...

Hi Anne Marie,
Yeah, I've posted the picture before, but I thought as far as body language goes, it's very telling. I LOVED your last post on burn out. By the time I read it I felt it was too late to comment so I didn't, but I totally hit the wall myself and I spent much of the winter break with family and avoiding all things "book" related. Anyway... glad you liked the post.

jean harrington said...

Off hand, I don't have a body language example to quote for you, but I can say that in my writing, expressing body language in ways that aren't hackneyed, trite or so commonplace as to be clich├ęd is a major challenge. So after posting this, I'm going to go back and study your blog for hints as to what to look for and, not incidentally, to draw on in my stories. An interesting subject. Thank you.

Cathy Perkins said...

Hi Dee - Lately I've been writing amateur sleuth stories which are told from one POV. Getting the other character's thoughts on the page has forced me to grow as an author - one of the many reasons I wrote them :) As Jean said, it's a challenge to avoid the cliches.

Dee J. said...

Hi Jean,
You're very right! It's so hard to come up with fresh ideas when it comes to body language, but that's where watching people helps. Thanks for stopping in!



Hi Cathy,
Definitely, avoiding cliches is tough, but I think sometimes it's the small things that might make the difference. Even rapid blinking can be a tell for someone and I don't think I read that very often. Thanks for popping in!

Clare London said...

Good grief, you could bounce footballs off that chest! :) (and I'm not talking about yours Dee haha). It's so easy to rely on description, isn't it? but the body language is just as much a part of show-not-tell. I know I forget sometimes, maybe because we deal in the written word rather than pics. Cathy's comment is great though - I've found the same when I write in first person. It's marvellous for suspense/crime, but you have to work harder to make the other characters more than 2D.

Dee J. said...

Hi Clare,
It's possible I'm a little more in tune with body language only because I was an actor for so long. Part of any audition was coming up with physical characteristics for a character as a whole, so hopefully I manage to do that with my characters on paper. It's definitely challenging to keep things fresh. Let's face it, there are only so many (moving) body parts to use. Thanks for stopping in!

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