In my last blog, I wrote about villains. As part of my research, I watched a You Tube interview with the sadistic serial killer, Ted Bundy, on the day before his execution. Bundy chose Dr. James Dobson, a Christian author, psychologist and the perfect image of a kindly uncle, as the only person he would speak to.
What’s curious about the video is Bundy’s body language. During the conversation, he alternates between closed or downcast eyes and direct stares at Dr. Dobson. Bundy is hunched over. He occasionally smiles slightly, squirms a little and clasps his hands but, otherwise, his demeanor is flat.
I found his behavior so fascinating I watched the video again with the audio muted. It became even more obvious he was wearing a cunning, carefully constructed mask.
Body language is nonverbal communication expressing emotions, or lack of them, through behavior. Bundy’s closed eyes, slumped posture, hand gestures and flat affect revealed more about him than all his words.
So how does body language apply to fiction?
It pulls the reader into the scene and helps her recognize and share the characters’ emotions.
As writers, we’re taught extensively about dialogue, but silent language is just as important. In real life, we expose our feelings in a symphony of movement. Folded arms, hands on the hips, a shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes, a shake of the head. We continue to “speak” even when we don’t open our mouths.
Certain behavior is considered universal. A smile, laughter and a frown convey the same meaning throughout all cultures.
However, movements or gestures that are acceptable in the United States may be offensive in other cultures. In Saudi Arabia, it’s taboo to shake a woman’s hand. Turks nod their heads up and back to nonverbally say “no.”
Holding a man’s hand in public may be acceptable in Pakistan but don’t try it in Montana. And be careful of the hand gestures you use in other cultures. You might get punched in the face.
Some people unknowingly make micro-moves (a shift of gaze, a twitch, a bite on the lip) that reveal their feelings or intentions. In poker, players watch for a “tell,” an unconscious action that suggests a bluff or deception.
In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote in his book, The Expressions of Emotion in Man and Animals, that humans and apes share similar body language passed down from a common ancestor. Other animals also convey emotion, often expressing dominance by puffing out their chests or showing off their plumage in the way a woman wears a lovely dress, cosmetics and perfume to attract a man. And what man doesn’t puff out his chest when he sees a beautiful woman?
A 1989 academic study shows that couples who gaze at each other for at least two minutes “rated their partner significantly higher on a liking and passionate love scale.” Be cautious about whom you stare at. It could lead to marriage.
Sometimes, body language can contradict a character’s words and reveal her true emotional state. For example, your protagonist says, “I’m not afraid,” but her hands are shaking.
Dogs are so expressive they seem almost human. After he’s made a mess on the carpet, the culprit often shakes with anxiety and hides under a table or in a corner, lowering his head and tail in guilt. At other times, he offers a wagging tail and sloppy kisses to show affection.
Anne Tyler uses a dog, Edward, in her novel, The Accidental Tourist, to replicate the feelings a person might have after the death of a loved one. Here’s how Anne Tyler describes the incident:
“Edward when he snarled was truly ugly. His fangs seemed to lengthen. He snapped at his leash with an audible click. Then he snapped at Macon’s hand. Macon felt Edward’s hot breath and the oddly intimate dampness of his teeth. His hand was not so much bitten as struck—slammed into with a jolt as you’d get from an electric fence.”
Macon falls in love with a woman who has a young son. Alexander is approximately the same age as the child Macon lost. He is just what Macon and Edward need. Tyler shows how their emotions change when they have a boy to love.
“There was no mistaking that stiff little figure with the clumsy backpack. ‘Wait,’ Alexander was crying. ‘Wait for me!’ The Ebbetts children, some distance away, turned and called something back. Macon couldn’t hear what they said but he knew the tone, all right—that high, mocking chant. ‘Nyah-nyah-nyah-NYAH-nyah!’ Alexander started running, stumbling over his shoes. Behind him came another group, two older boys and a girl with red hair, and they began jeering too.
Alexander wheeled and looked at them. His face was somehow smaller than usual. ‘Go,’ Macon told Edward and he dropped the leash. Edward didn’t need any urging. His ears had perked at the sound of Alexander’s voice, and now he hurtled after him. The three older children scattered as he flew through them, barking. He drew up short in front of Alexander, and Alexander knelt to hug his neck.”
Notice how Tyler shows Alexander’s vulnerability through body language. He’s a “stiff little figure” and “his face was somehow smaller than usual.” Edward has changed, too. “His ears had perked at the sound of Alexander’s voice, and now he hurtled after him.” Tyler’s skill at showing her characters’ —including the dog’s—feelings through body language is masterful.
Here’s another example from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams:
“’Hallie always favored Doc more,’ Viola said.
I pondered this but couldn’t see it—Hallie was so vital and Doc Homer looked drawn. But then what I saw really was their interiors, not their facades. Your own family resemblances are a frustrating code, most easily read by those who know you the least.”
Later, Viola makes “an odd sound, like unconsummated laughter.”
And another example from Michael Chabon’s Summerland:
“He looked at Ethan, his tiny brown eyes blinking furiously between the lenses of his glasses. He scratched his right calf with the toe of his left foot…The silence went on for an uncomfortably long time.”
And in the same novel:
“He mumbled and muttered, waving his arms around, then cursed loudly and stomped his foot. Each time he stomped it the car creaked loudly. It was hard to believe a little foot like that could stomp so hard.”
Notice that in all these examples only one person, Viola, speaks. The rest is nonverbal.
Think of the characters in your novel. How can you express their feelings without using dialogue? What can you show through your characters’ facial expressions, eye movement, laughter, stance, gestures, sounds, silence and all the other nonverbal means of communication in your repertoire? Body language can deepen your characters and convey more than a chorus of words.