Dialogue is a great tool to establish relationships between your characters and deepen emotional connection to your readers. But if you rely on dialogue alone to show how your characters interact, you’re missing a big opportunity. In real life, nonverbal cues—body language—account for more than 90% of our communication. Including body language in your writing gives your characters more depth and provides a relatable, interactive experience for your readers.
That’s easy enough to see in real-world interactions or on the stage or screen, but how can you write it into your story?
How to use body language effectively in your writing
There are so many components to body language, and many writers only ever use a few. To create believable and engaging characters, it’s important to look at all the ways to communicate body language in your writing.
Most of my clients don’t know this because we primarily work over email and telephone, but I talk with my hands. Big time. Some of your characters probably do too. Sure, not everyone uses finger guns (even though they should). But virtually everyone shakes hands, points, or waves.
One word of caution: be aware that your book will likely be read around the world, and some gestures have different cultural connotations. One common example is the two-fingered V. Other than being super popular now in selfies, it has also meant victory, peace, or an insult. If you use it, make it clear how it’s being used.
2. Facial expression
Again, some of us have very expressive faces, and others are harder to read. But facial expressions are an important part of body language because they are pretty much universal. Even people who curb their reactions still have tiny involuntary changes called microexpressions. Our brains pick up on these and decipher them, even when we aren’t aware that they’re happening. How cool is that?!
3. Tone of voice and cadence
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.” For example, my kids know I’m close to losing my patience when I slow my speech and lower the pitch of my voice. That’s their cue to get in line or risk Mom’s wrath. Your characters’ speech will sound different to each other, depending on what emotion they are feeling. How does your protagonist sound when she’s excited? Guilty? Apathetic?
Some gestures relate to touch, but I included it as a separate category because it’s all about how the characters interact. Touch conveys so much in just a fleeting moment. Think about all the emotions expressed by physical contact—running a hand through a child’s hair, laying a head on a friend’s shoulder, punching someone in the face!
Posture is how we hold our bodies while we stand and sit, but it’s more than just being able to balance a book on your head. The way a character carries himself as he goes about his life says a lot about him. Does he stand tall or slouch? Does he sit back with his legs crossed or lean forward? How does your character hold his head, shoulders, arms, and legs—and what does that tell your readers about him?
6. Proxemics (personal space)
This aspect of body language makes me think of that old Seinfeld episode about the close talker, a man who doesn’t understand the idea of personal space. Most people respect that people want 18 inches or so between themselves and others. To be inside that space usually means either intimacy (if wanted) or threat (if unwanted). Again, there are cultural differences here, so be aware of that when you write.
7. Physical appearance
Our cleanliness, hairstyles, clothes, accessories, and other decisions about personal appearance tell others plenty about us. In fact, our first impressions of people often come from these choices. Show more about your characters by showing these aspects of them as well. Maybe she only likes to wear skirts or always wears a cross necklace. Maybe she has giant, unruly curly hair. Maybe she was just born that way, and it doesn’t mean anything about her, OK???
Sometimes a character’s actions are a kind of body language. How and when he acts in certain ways can be meaningful (it isn’t always). Running instead of walking, slamming doors, taking a drink to fill a loaded silence, jumping in a car and driving away…these are all actions that carry emotion.
9. Physical sensations
Especially effective when writing in deep POV, these are the involuntary responses a character’s body will have to a certain stimulus. It might mean prickling skin, sweating, blushing, fast pulse, dry mouth…you get the idea. These are physiological responses we all share, so it engages readers’ senses and memories. It’s easy, though, to end up with a bunch of sweaty people with goosebumps who are practically having heart attacks. So be careful not to overdo it or go into clichés or purple prose.
A few other tips
Use it to strengthen dialogue
Body language reinforces the emotional connotation of the words, breaks up large amounts of dialogue, and provides a better alternative to dialogue tags.
Make the connection
Make sure you’re clearly connecting the chain of emotions, thoughts, motivations, actions, and reactions. Don’t hit your reader over the head with it, but don’t leave it ambiguous either.
Use multiple kinds of body language
Don’t rely on one nonverbal cue to communicate everything. Write them in little groupings and sprinkle them throughout the story.
Sometimes it’s about what they don’t do
Some characters are carefully blank, schooling their expressions and controlling their actions. What a person doesn’t do can say as much about them as what they do.
Make sure you include intentional actions as well as unconscious reactions to go even deeper.
Body language habits = personality quirks
Use your characters favorite body language as a personality quirk. Be careful not to repeat it too much, though, or you may bore your readers.
How do you use body language to create engaging characters? Leave a comment or tweet me @jenichappelle.