Crafting a “Body Language Voice”

september-c-fawkesYou’ve probably heard about “voice”–that elusive quality that so many editors, agents, and readers are drawn to. Years ago, I did a couple of posts about character voice, arguing that it’s made up of what the character says and how she says it. Each character should have a unique voice. Sure, their voice can have similarities with other voices, but when it gets down to it, they are somewhat different. But you know what else is somewhat unique to an individual? Body language.

So today I’m going to talk about what I refer to sometimes as “body language voice.” The reason this can be tricky is because many writers learning the craft are completely unaware of it. Instead, they simply focus on the emotion they are trying to portray to the audience–which is great, because that means they are trying to “show” how someone feels instead of simply “tell,” but one of the problems that can arise is that the writer gives the characters all the same emotional indicators. Whenever a character is annoyed, he or she rolls her eyes. It doesn’t matter who the character is, it’s the same response. Every character shrugs. Every woman puts her hands on her hips.

Write stronger emotions using your character's "Body Language Voice"To take this to the next level, you should develop a “body language voice.” Most people I know don’t actually roll their eyes. Some do, but most don’t. It’s a specific type of person who uses this body language. I know lots of people who never shrug or put their hands on their hips. Like with typical character voices, there may be aspects that overlap with others. For example, two different people might still say “That’s lit,” but it’s unlikely that everyone says that. Then there are more common and universal words and phrases that almost everyone says, like “How are you?” and “Cool.” This applies to body language. Most everyone smiles, nods, and shakes hands. Those are more universal. But beyond things like that, your characters should have their own body language.

This means moving beyond your go-to emotional indicators. A great resource of course to help with this is Angela and Becca’s The Emotion Thesaurus. When looking at the lists in the entries, ask yourself which indicator fits that specific character. How does that character express anger?

Instead of making all your characters roll their eyes when they are annoyed, try to mostly limit that to one person. It’s “her” thing. What character does that body language most suit? I pretty much never roll my eyes (unless I’m being sarcastic) because I think it’s rude, and even if I feel annoyed, I don’t necessarily want the other people present to know I feel that way. So for someone like me, I almost never do that. However, I know a few people who do that precisely because they want the other person to notice. Other times, simply because that is the way they release annoyance. So looking at who your character is will help you determine what sort of reactions most suit him or her.

I know people who shake their leg when they are nervous, others who literally put their tongue in their cheek to keep from laughing, some who quirk an eyebrow, and some who can rarely maintain eye contact. Watch which people in your life do what to help you individualize the body language of your own characters.

There are also internal emotional responses. More of these are universal, but some may be unique. Whenever Ron Weasley gets uncomfortable or embarrassed, his ears go hot (I know they are hot, because they go red). Sometimes when I’m super excited about something I feel like I’m going to throw up–weird right? (It’s weird to me as that’s something I would relate more toward nerves not excitement.) I have a friend who only really cries when she’s mad. So even how our bodies respond to certain emotions may be somewhat unique. (Just don’t go to so many extremes that they get ridiculous.)

I could go on with examples, but I think you get the idea. Your characters should have their own body language.

For further reading on this, check out Becca’s post on Finding Your Character’s Emotional Range.

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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Nancy LiPetri
2 years ago

Great post! Like you, I picture people I know or watch in shows to inspire how my characters reveal their thoughts/feelings through mannerisms. Some fiddle with their hat, a coffee cup, their beard stubble or clothing… These details not only show personality but make it easier for us to pace conversation and show who’s talking. This subject makes me look forward to working on another story 🙂


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2 years ago

I love that you tackle this because you’re right in that it can be tempting to write something like “she rolled her eyes” to show the character is put off, but in real life…how often does a person do it if this isn’t part of their personality? And some people are very self aware (for many different reasons) and they are careful about what they express and when. Our characters would be the same way and some expressions might not be in their “vocabulary.” Thanks so much for the food for thought. 🙂

September C. Fawkes
2 years ago

Hi Angela!

Somehow I missed your comment earlier! Yes, I think you are right. Good point that some characters are more self away than others.

2 years ago

No worries!