Grayscale Photo of Cowboy Boots

The Art of Action

Characters do more than just talk at each other. They move – with grace, in anger, to disguise emotion – and movement tells even more about them than their words. Understanding and using action to tell a story is both powerful and organic – a naturally evolving way to strong characterization.

What is body language? Google it on the web – you’ll find dozens of books by experts from all sides:  psychology, business, spiritual growth, forensic investigations, and many, many more, all useful in their own way.

Each expert ultimately says the same thing.

Humans have a universal language. And, if an author can capture that physical reaction in words, there is an instantaneous and, often, unconscious connection formed with the reader.

Wow! What better way to reel your reader in? Showing a reader what your character is feeling simply by the way he stands or she smiles is mega-powerful!  But it’s not just about a lip curling or an eyebrow lifting or eyes narrowing. In fact, more than one writer doesn’t understand just how potent a well-executed “message cluster”, or multiple body language signals, can be.

Let’s take a character – a female private eye who is strong-willed, brave to the point of foolhardiness, and angry at men. But let’s also give her a vulnerability:  her mother died when she was young and she feels guilty because children often do.

So, what do you think she would look like? Exhibit as body language?

I can see her wearing a short, tight skirt and red and black cowboy boots and an attitude a mile long. Let’s give her long purple-painted fingernails that she taps on her phone as she waits for a late client.

Her legs are crossed, barely covering the essentials, and her drawn-on eyebrows are getting lower and closer together as she waits.

A woman and small child walk by and the mother stops long enough to tie her daughter’s shoelace. Our character averts her head, not willing to watch the tenderness with which the mother smiles at her child.

It hurts too badly and she doesn’t know how to handle it.

This character is acting in the manner a woman in her position with her background would. She is going to be hard-shelled and difficult with easily-pushed buttons. And her body will show this with every movement she makes. The reader will identify with this character, based on the messages her body gives them.

a black and white photo of a woman sitting on a bench

Contrast this type of character with a preacher’s wife. Chances are that she’ll be soft-spoken and well-mannered with her emotions hidden behind a sometimes forced smile. Maybe she would wear a dark-colored dress, buttoned to the neck, with a small white collar. A black sweater allows her to hide any vulnerabilities she has. Her shoes are non-descript flats that she will place with care as she walks, as if on eggshells.   

Her daughter has just defiantly blurted out that she’s pregnant, so our character drops into a chair and wraps her sweater around her body to protect her core, slipping off her shoes to tuck her feet up under her dress. Do you see the fetal position – one that shields her from things she doesn’t want to think about?

But, when she’s defending her daughter, she’ll put her feet solidly on the ground and pull her sleeves up past her elbows, baring her arms for the coming fight. Her voice, earlier trembling and weak, will take on power and strength for the length of the adrenaline rush. But all too soon, at least until a character arc changes the situation, she’ll retreat back into the wifely role – the sleeves will once again cover her arms, her voice will become soft again and she’ll slip back into the character she needs to be.

The combination and contrast of the body language clusters help our readers to see these characters as real people, with real emotions. Incorporating a few here and another couple there, especially in a large, important scene, can make all the difference!

I’ve just mentioned a few emotions – there are many, many places to find more and I encourage you to look for ways to portray them. Post some of your body language examples!

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