It’s a scientific fact that a large proportion of human communication is non-verbal: body language and tone of voice, rather than the actual words spoken. And yet, for the most part, body language features very little, or doesn’t figure at all, in many of our first novel drafts. Why? Part of the reason, I believe, is because non-verbal communication is second nature to us – so much so that we don’t really notice it most of the time. We read other people’s body language quite expertly often without consciously recognizing or acknowledging that we are doing so.
The fact is that bodily actions often speak louder than mere words. If someone turns their back on us or shakes their fist at us, we don’t really need to be told where we stand with them – the body language says it all. And it is exactly the same for your characters.
More importantly, body language can often show us the sub-text to the words being spoken: describe a character with a false smile and cold eyes speaking gushing words of welcome to your protagonist – immediately the reader understands there is something else going on in this scene – it’s clear the first character is only pretending to be welcoming – but why? The reader will read on to find out the answer to that question. Expressing character emotions through their body language is perfect ‘show, not tell’, and can set up a hook for your reader all in one go!
So, how do you get physical in your writing? Well, you could use a cheat sheet detailing handy physical shortcuts to show character emotions (yes, they do exist), but Book Nanny doesn’t recommend this. They may be useful to remind you as an author to look at body language, but, remember: if you find it easy to use the cheat sheets, so will hundreds of other writers. And the result will be hundreds, if not thousands, of characters throwing their heads back and clapping their hands in amusement, crinkling their noses in disgust or shrinking back in fear, and so on. Therein lies the smoothly-paved path to a thousand clichés, and none of us should kid ourselves that readers won’t pick up on this – they will!
The fact is, if you are looking to make your characters unique, you won’t achieve this by having them behave in the same way as thousands of other characters. In addition, you run the risk of scuppering your prose with lazy repetitions.
Instead, use the two most valuable tools you possess as a writer: imagination and observation.
Imagine whatever emotion you want to describe; call it up in your mind; monitor how your own body reacts and note it down. Observe other people – you can always ask friends and family to help you out. How do they react physically to different emotions? How is their reaction different to yours? Then ask yourself how does your character react – the same as you or differently? That way you get a physical reaction unique to your character.
Individual, well-observed character tics and body language say far more to a reader than stock-in-trade reactions, and a character who doesn’t react as expected is often more intriguing than one who does.
But what if your character is the sort of person who does clap their hands when amused? How do you beat the cliché? Simple: detail! Look for the angle which will also put the spotlight on the character’s uniqueness, rather than focussing solely on the emotion:
‘Oooh,’ she squeaked, clapping her small, childlike hands in amusement.
Oh, and please remember that less is often more with body language.
Give enough detail to get the message across, but don’t overdo it: you don’t want your character to read as though they are having enough physical reactions to bring on a heart attack every time they experience an emotion (you know, the heart-thumping, sweaty-palms, legs-turning-to jelly, gasping-for-breath sort of thing).
Apart from anything else, this can stray into the unintentionally comical. So keep it short, succinct and unique as much as possible.