What is Body Language?
Communication isn’t all talk, talk, talk. Body language refers to the nonverbal signals. They can be subtle or overt, conscious or unconscious, but all humans give off messages without speaking. These signals make up a huge part of a conversation, some scientists estimate at least ninety percent of the data exchanged between two participants is in the form of nonverbal communication. For a writer, body language can offer hints to a character’s inner turmoil or beliefs without having to spell it out. Body language can subvert the evil of “telling” an over-explanation by showing what a character is thinking.
Types of Body Language
Since most people focus on faces in a conversation, expressions convey a huge amount of information with even a slight variation in facial muscles. For instance, you don’t need to tell the reader a character is happy if they have eyes crinkled at the corners and a beaming smile. Using the same two focal points of eyes and mouth, anger is present when those eyes narrow and lips stretch across a tight smile.
Eyes are an important focal point. Normal, steady eye contact signals a person is truthful and trustworthy. An inability to maintain eye contact sends up warning signals to the reader of lies or deception. Blinking can communicate something irritating the eye, but also surprise or shiftiness.
Deliberate movements and signals pass information without words. Interestingly enough, facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are similar throughout the world, but gestures can vary widely in meaning. A circled thumb and forefinger means “Okay” here, but in Brazil it refers to a certain body opening that is best left unmentioned. For a writer, think how gestures can be incorporated into a scene. A girl impatiently waits for a boy. The author doesn’t need to tell the reader her growing annoyance as she paces and constantly checks her phone. They’ll get the message.
Paralinguistics is vocal communication separate from actual language such as tone, loudness, inflection, and pitch. The same voice can rise and fall, become shrill or raspy, stutter or blurt depending on the emotional state of the character. A change in tone can change the meaning of a sentence. If a person asks “How are you feeling?” and the answer is “Okay” but the voice is tight, dry, and shaky then something is up.
Posture takes in the whole body, so when writing a scene where you wish to convey a particular emotion don’t stop at facial features, but envision the complete character. Brighter feelings such as happiness tend to cause more open postures; shoulders up, arms wide or out. Darker feelings such as sadness or anger have more closed, stiff postures, with clenched hands or arms kept tight to the body.
Proxemics is personal space, the distance needed to feel comfortable with another. It’s influenced by factors such as social norms and culture, but also has a situational aspect. Two people attracted to each other will move together. Two people repelled will move apart. An aggressive person will move forward and threatened person will back away.
Haptics, communication through touch, is another important nonverbal behavior. A simple hand on the shoulder may convey either sympathy or an uncomfortable invasion of personal space depending on the situation and the power differential between two characters. Women tend to use touch to convey care, concern, and nurturance while men are more likely to use touch to assert power or control over others.
Appearance and clothing also convey nonverbal communication and can be used to define characters. A shy person is unlikely to shave half her head and dress in bold, bright colors to attract attention. Appearances affect physiological reactions, judgments, and interpretations from others. Call it “The Cinderella Effect.” Not even her stepmother recognized her at the ball and all she did was take a bath and slip on a new outfit. Clothing can relay tons of information about character. Loose clothing vs. stiletto heels, tailored suits vs. denim. The choices authors make in a character's outward appearance can give subtle clues to inner thoughts and desires.
When to Add Body Language
Incorporating Body Language is a great way to create believable and engaging characters, but don’t go overboard. Too much description is a good way to make readers’ eyes glaze over. Body language doesn’t have to be added in the first draft. Think of it as icing on the cake and use it to flesh out a scene, especially where you can “show it” instead of “tell it.” Need a few ideas? Check out the websites below for body language lists.
L. A. Kelley writes science fiction and fantasy adventures with humor, romance and a touch of sass. She is fluent in three different body languages.