Research shows that people convey thoughts, emotions, and feelings in three different ways:
7 percent verbal—what is said
38 percent vocal—how it is said
55 percent nonverbal—facial expressions, posture, gestures, etc.
Body language falls under the largest category and is defined as the nonverbal communication of emotion, state of mind, or state of physical well-being.
Since most communication between people in real life is nonverbal, authors must incorporate this into their character interactions in order to make a story feel authentic. But it takes skill to create visuals of a character’s movements in the reader’s mind, to make the characters seem like real people rather than stick figures moving around on a stage. Weaving in body language can make characters come alive, adds physicality to the story, and reveals things about the characters that can’t be conveyed in any other way.
Types of body language include gestures (the positioning of a hand, arm, body, head, or face that is expressive of an idea, opinion, or emotion), posture (the physical carriage of the body), movement (a change of place, position, or posture of a person or part of a person), and facial expressions (movement of any part of the face). Here are some examples of characterization through body language.
She put her hands on her hips and stood firm without saying another word.
He snapped his fingers. “Get my dinner, woman,” he shouted.
She bowed her head so as not to have to look at his face.
He slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough!”
He sat at a slight angle across from the interviewer with his arms folded and legs crossed.
She waited for the officer to arrive as she sat with her son slumped in the chair next to her.
He locked his arms across his chest. “No way!”
She leaned away from him. “This isn’t working.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You expect me to believe this?”
His cheeks turned tomato-red. “What do you mean you hurt her?”
“I’m sorry.” She stared at the floor. “I didn’t want it to be this way.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Really?”
Don’t be afraid to use every part of the body when showing body language—head, hair, forehead, face, eyebrows, eyelashes, eyes, ears, nose, nostrils, mouth, lips, teeth, jaw, chin, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, hips, legs, feet, and toes. The tricky part is to create the motion as though the character is doing it unconsciously. Here is a good example from Runaway by Alice Munro.
She didn’t do anything to avoid Sylvia’s look. She drew her lips tight over her teeth and shut her eyes and rocked back and forth as if in a soundless howl, and then, shockingly, she did howl. She howled and wept and gulped for air and tears ran down her cheeks and snot out of her nostrils and she began to look around wildly for something to wipe with.
Describe body movements and facial expressions sparingly—be careful not to decelerate a scene and shift the reader's focus away from the action. Instead, blend it in with the rest of the narrative so that it’s subtle. Use it to reveal a person’s intentions, feelings, or mood when words aren’t enough or instead of words, which is sometimes better.
The following paragraph contains the right amount of body language indicated with bolding.
Danny drove at a leisurely pace south on Highway 1 just outside of Santa Monica when a red, older-model Mustang that had been parked on the side of the road pulled out in front of him, causing him to slam on his brakes and swerve. Once he caught up to the reckless driver and made eye contact with him in the driver’s rearview mirror, Danny recognized him as his sister’s ex-boyfriend Carl. The two drove within ten feet of each other for a quarter mile or so, and then Carl’s arm jerked up to flip him the bird. Enraged by Carl’s behavior, Danny returned the gesture. Carl decelerated to 15 mph, slow enough for Danny to catch Carl’s sneer in his mirror. Carl threw his head back and laughed as he sped up, but as soon as Danny reached him, he slowed down again, this time to a crawl. Incensed, Danny pulled around him, only to see the toddler, his niece, in the back seat, her mouth wide open, arms flailing, and eyes so wide open he could see her blue irises.
Following are a few examples of ways to convey body language.
Anger/Aggression: Contracted brows, chin up, chest out, clenched teeth/fist/jaw, tight lips, frown, clasped hands behind head, tense mouth, flared nostrils, high-pitched voice, facial/neck flush, hands on hips, staring, sneering, loud voice, rapid speech, brow muscles moved inward, slamming things, bared teeth, legs apart, finger pointing. Boredom: Legs crossed with slight foot kick, head resting on hand, eyes downcast, yawning, hand supporting chin or side of face, hands in pockets, consistently looking around, doodling, tapping toes, repeatedly looking at clock/watch, slouching, leaning against wall. Confidence: Brisk direct walk, direct eye contact, palms down, standing tall, hands clasped behind head, legs crossed, controlled voice, head held high, chest forward, shoulders back, hands behind back, feet apart, chin up. Flirtation: Looking at a person from head to toe, continual glancing, running hands through hair, eye catch and then look away, eyelash flicker, shoulder glance, moistening lips, parted lips, flicking hair, head tilt, self-touching, leaning forward, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in, cowboy stance (thumbs in belt loops, fingers pointed toward genitals), room scanning, mutual smiling, smiling with tilted head, foot touching, preening, leaning in. Nervousness: Crossed arms, Adam’s apple jump, biting nails, increased blinking, forced laugh, one arm across body clasping other arm by side, handbag/briefcase held in front of body, adjusting things, looking to sides, clenched hands, stuttering, voice cracking, fidgeting, fumbling, locked ankles, jiggling money/keys in pocket, tugging on ear, clutching object tightly, pacing. Surprise: Flashbulb eyes, widened eyes, raised (curved up) eyebrows, open mouth, sudden backward movement/jump, backward head tilt, head jerk, hand clasped over mouth, dropped jaw, tense muscles, wrinkled forehead, shrieking, screaming.
Sometimes all that is needed is body language, like when your female character takes two steps backward before she picks up a heavy candlestick during an argument with her abusive husband. Nothing has to be said—the message is in her body language. Or having your character sit in a chair with one arm on the arm rest, the other one draped along the chair’s back, and one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. Only a confident person would sit like that.
The best place to find authentic body language for specific occasions is within yourself. Imagine yourself in the scene. How would you react? What expression would be on your face? What movements would you be making? Immerse yourself in the scene to determine what fits.