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41 Flavors of Body Language for Writers

WritersdontcryThe Many Emotions of EmoticowsBody language can transform a fight scene from mere hack-and-slash into a riveting clash of bodies and souls. It can make an otherwise yawn-inducing argument so intense you forget to breathe. And it can take the wooden performance of a cardboard character and bring it to vibrant, messy, glorious life.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of dialogue, and there’s a ton you can do with it alone. You can express every emotion in the world, and a host of interesting subtexts with your choice of words, tone of voice, placement of dialogue tags, and so forth. But that’s just one language. Think of how much more you could do with two!*

 Because body language, when you think about it, is just that: a language. Providing layers of meaning and nuance, as well as fodder for some of the juiciest gossip and social drama. Which is awesome! Or at least, it is when you put it in the context of writing. By using body language to accent action, dialogue, and character interactions, you can:

  1. Emphasize the Emotion by expressing the same thing with a character’s words and body language. (He’s really mad.)
  2. Complicate the Emotion by expressing one thing with words, and a slightly different thing with body language. (He’s mad, but with a side of guilt.)
  3. Contradict the Emotion by expressing one thing with words, and a contradictory thing with body language. (He’s saying he’s mad, but he’s actually super proud of me.)

And oh, the possibilities if you just weave in the body language for “lying” with any of the above (. . . Drama!). I get excited just thinking about it. Of course, unless you’ve thought about it a whole lot, using body language effectively can actually get a little complicated. So, to help get you started, I’ve come up with my top three tips for using body language, as well as a list of a bunch (41!) of different emotions—each with a few body language-erific ways to express it.

*Of course, the same could be said for the actions of fight scenes and the emotions of character interactions.

Keep It (Character) Specific

We all know from personal experience that when people get mad? It can be in a variety of different ways. Some people get loud, shouting, waving their arms, and generally losing control and making themselves look big. Others go quiet, cold, and calculating, talking in clipped sentences, crossing their arms, and generally tightening their control—and their defenses. There are even people who smile when angry. So what do your characters do? Are they hot or cold? Extroverted in their anger, introverted, or somewhere in between?

Character-specific body language is great for expressing personality, culture, and background. Just remember: body language is not some fancy new kind of sprinkles! It doesn’t just go on top; it should always be integral to the character and what they’re trying to express. And, as always, be sure to stay on the right side of that charming-cliché line.

Make Sure It Adds

Just as in dialogue, where we don’t really say everything a person would say (uhm, ah, er), it’s also good to be choosey about what body language you use.  For example, be careful when emphasizing an emotion expressed in dialogue with body language--if the concept is very simply put (“No!” She shook her head.) it can come off as repetitive rather than emphatic. In this case, you might be better served by using either just the dialogue or just the body language. And, of course, you can keep it from being too simple by playing with the timing. If a character emphatically shakes their head no for a bit before managing to find the words to properly express their presumably extremest of displeasure, well . . . that says something! Something more than just shaking your head “no.”

Don’t Neglect Nonhumans

Be they mice, half-devils, or My Little Ponies, nonhuman characters have a lot unique body language to play with. (Hello, big pointy ears! They’re like an extra set of eyebrows . . . for your whole body! Or maybe that’s wings . . .) And incorporating those expressive, nonhuman elements is a great way to really make them feel real—as well as up the endearment factor by like, a million. To start, try listing the things the nonhuman has that are distinctive, like wings, mobile ears and tails, antennae, horns, and fur. Then, figure out how each of the character would use each of those pieces given different emotions. Perhaps an angry character’s tail lashes, and a dejected character’s wings wrap tightly around her body. Just play with it! And, if you get stuck, watch Elinor in mother bear mode in Brave, Toothless the dragon in How to Train Your Dragon, or Donkey in Shrek for some awesome inspiration.

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41 Emotions as Expressed through Body Language unique
This list, while exhausting, is soooo not exhaustive; it barely scratches the surface. And each entry could easily become cliché (if it isn’t already). But, it should be enough to get you started. Want more? Start watching people (not in a creepy way), and take notes of what they seem to do when expressing different emotions. Your repertoire of expression will double in no time. PS—do not use these for actual, real-life body language reading; you will fail. These are strictly novelistic.

Awed
-Slack
-jawed, raised eyebrows, staring
-Frozen, slack body language (Self? What self? There is only Zuul.)
-Take a step back and put a hand to his heart

Amused
-Smiling and throwing back her head laughing
-Slapping her thighs, stamping her feet, clapping her hands
-Shaking her head (That’s so wrong!)

Angry/Aggressive
-Sharp movements, like shaking a fist, pointing, slashing, or slamming a fist on a table
-Flushed face, patchy red blotches
-Tension in neck—chords standing out, veins throbbing—and jutting or tucked chin
-Arms akimbo, or clenching fists
-Entering someone else’s space and forcing them out
-Poofing up with a wide stance (I am big! Very big!), arms wide (Bring it!)
-Lowered eyebrows, squinting eyes
-Teeth bared, jaw clenched, snarling

Annoyed
-Pressing lips together into a thin line
-Narrowing eyes sometimes with slight head tilt (Why do you still exist?)
-Rolling eyes, often paired with a long-suffering sigh

Anxious
-Fidgeting, such as tearing grass into little pieces, playing with a ring, or chewing on a pencil
-Biting lower lip, swallowing unnecessarily
-Quickened breathing or holding breath
-Darting eyes
-Pallor, sweating, clammy palms
-Unusually high-pitched, “nervous” laughter
-Hunched shoulders
-Pacing

Attentive
-Slow head nodding with a furrowed brow
-Leaning forward, toward the speaker, and sitting up
-Taking notes
-Looking over the top of her glasses

Bored
-Resting his head on his palm, peeking out between the fingers, maybe even slipping so his head “accidentally” hits the table
-Tapping toes, twirling pencil, doodling, and otherwise fidgeting
-Staring out a window, or at anything remotely more interesting (Which is everything . . .)

Confident
-Arms clasped behind body
-Head lifted, chest out, standing tall
-Walking briskly and making firm, precise movements

Confused
-Tilting head with narrowed eyes
-A furrowed brow
-Shrugging

Contempt/Superiority
-Lifted chin (The better to look down the nose.)
-Pursed lips, sneering, slight frown
-Circling a shoulder, stretching her neck, turning away—anything to indicate she doesn’t see the person as a threat or worthy of her attention
-Grabbing her lapels, or tucking her thumbs in her waistcoat (See this clothing? It is much nicer than yours.)
-Dismissive hand-waving

Cynical/Sarcastic/Bitter
-Twisted lips or a half-smile
-Sneering, sometimes with shaking the head and other defensive body language
-Pressed lips with a slight frown
-Eye rolling

Defensive
-Crossed arms, legs, crossed anything, really (Well, maybe not fingers . . . or eyes . . .)
-Arms out, palms forward (Stop!)
-Placing anything (sword, shield, book, backpack) in front of her body

Disgusted
-Crinkling his nose
-Curling his lip and/or showing the tip of his tongue briefly
-Flinching back and interposing a shoulder or turning away
-Covering his nose, gagging, and squinting his eyes shut—hard—for a moment. (It assaults all the senses.)

Displeased
-A plastered-on fake smile (You suck; but I can’t tell you that. So here: a fake smile! Enjoy.)
-Pouting or frowning (I’ll cry if you don’t give me what I want—don’t test me, I will!)
-Crossed arms and other defensive/frustrated body language (I will not let that terrible idea influence me!)

Distressed
-Wide eyes and shallow, rapid breathing
-Beating the walls, or huddling into a corner
-Clasping hands over his head protectively
-Rocking himself
-Handwringing
-Running his hands through his hair

Earnest/Passionate
-Leaning forward, nodding, wide eyes with strong eye contact and raised eyebrows
-Hand on heart, or presented palms-up, or otherwise visible
-A double-handed handshake (I really want to make sure you understand me!)

Embarrassment
-Blushing
-Stammering
-Covering her face with her hands or bowing her head (I’m so embarrassed, I can’t look!)
-Difficulty maintaining eye contact, looking down and away

Excited/Anticipation
-Rubbing hands together (I can’t wait to get my hands on it!)
-Licking lips (It’s so close I can taste it!)
-A vigorous, pumping handshake (I can’t wait to get started!)
-Jumping up and down (Look at me being literal here! I am jumping for joy.)
-A wide and easy grin

Flirty
-Eye play, like winking, looking up through the lashes, over the shoulder glances, and eye catching 
-Preening, like hair flipping or smooth, clothing straightening, spine straightening, etc.
-Striking a cowboy pose, with his thumbs gripping his belt tight

Frustrated
-Shaking his head (You are so wrong!)
-Massaging temples (My brain—it hurts.)
-Clasping his wrist in his opposite hand, behind his back (Bad arm! No biscuit.)
-Running his hands through his hair (All this frustration is making my hair mussy. I can feel it.)
-Grabbing onto something like armrests, or white-knuckled interdigitation (Restrain yourself!)

Happy
-Smiling and laughing
-Eyes and nose crinkling
-Swinging her arms, spinning loosely, dancing, jumping

Impatience
-Quick head nodding (Get on with it!)
-Toe/finger tapping (Hear this? These are seconds. Wasted. Listening to you.)
-Sighing, checking the clock/sundial/freckles (Time. It is moving so slowly.)

Jealous
-Tight lips, or a sour expression
-Narrow eyes locked on the perpetrator, to the point of a stare down
-Crossed arms, and additional frustrated, angry, possessive, or bitter body language

Lying
-Scratching their nose, ear, neck, miscellaneous part of face
-Sudden change in behavior or demeanor, including shifty eye contact, lots of long blinking, shrugging
-Ill-timed smiles or laughter (This is how I normally smile, right? Right???)
-Additional anxiety body language
-Shaking head no while saying “yes” (I can’t believe I just lied.)
-Licking lips, covering mouth, touching mouth, etc.

Overwhelmed
-Both palms to forehead, fingers splayed (This gives me a headache.)
-Covering eyes with one hand (If I can’t see the world, it can’t see me . . .)
-Eyes wide and staring into space, hands gripping the table in front of her (. . . Woah.)

Playful/Friendly
-Winking
-Waggling eyebrows
-Tiny shoves or nudge

Pleasure
-Head tilted back, lips parted slightly, eyes wide or closed
-Slow, languorous movements, stretching (such as arching her neck or back)
-Slight flush, quickened breath and pulse

Possessive
-Handshake with arm clasp
-Putting hands on or around someone’s shoulders, neck, waist, back, or even just the wall near them
-Standing in someone’s personal space, body positioned toward that person
-Any one-sided act of intimacy, like running a knuckle down someone’s cheek
-Staring down any who get too close

Proud/Dominant
-Chin up, chest out, shoulders back
-A painfully hard handshake that not only squishes the bones, but also forces his hand on top
-Leaning back with his hands behind his head, and his feet up
-Strong, unblinking, focused eye contact

Reluctance/Resistance
-Arms crossed, sometimes with fists (Not happening.)
-Dragging feet (But I don’t wanna!)
-Pinching nose (You want me to do what now?)
-Clamping hands over ears (La la la la!)

Sad/Upset
-Droopy body (and anything held, like a sword), bowed in shoulders, wrapping arms around self
-Slow movements with hesitation
-Bottom lip jutting out and/or quivering
-Crying, sobbing, body shaking, sniffling, wet eyes

Secretive
-A tight-lipped smile (My lips are zipped.)
-Hiding her hands in her pockets (What has it got in its nasty little pocket?)
-Looking away

Scared
-Hunched shoulders, shrinking back from others (Don’t hurt me!)
-Wide eyes and lifted eyebrows (The better to see them coming.)
-Shaking, trembling, or freezing
-Rocking from side to side, sometimes holding self (It’ll all be okay, self, it’ll all be okay.)

Shame
-Slumped shoulders (Don’t look at me.)
-Trouble meeting your gaze, looking down and away
-Burying her face in her hands or bowing her head (I can’t face the world right now.)

Shocked
-Hands covering her mouth, or mouth hanging open, sometimes with a gasp (If I had words, I would be saying them.)
-Freezing and staring with wide eyes and eyebrows raised (Diverting all resources toward staring.)
-Smacking a palm into his forehead (Clearly, my head isn’t working right, or I wouldn’t have seen that)

Shy
-Avoids eye contact, or has only fleeting eye contact (Eye contact means you might speak to me.)
-Keeps a fair distance from everyone, and will back away if someone steps closer (Space invaders!)
-Folded arms, head down, and other defensive body language (If I make myself small, they can’t see me.)

Smug
-Slight, close-lipped smile (occasionally one-sided) and sometimes one raised eyebrow (I know something you don’t know.)
-Chin slightly tucked, Mona Lisa smile, raised eyebrows (I know better.)
-Finger steepling (I am so smaaaht.)

Suspicious/Skeptical/Disbelief
-Narrowed eyes, sometimes with a sidelong glance or raised eyebrow (Perhaps if I look at it out of the corner of my eye, I will catch it unawares.)
-Rubbing his eyes (I can’t believe what I’m metaphorically or literally seeing!)
-Shaking his head (I—I don’t believe it.)
-Blowing out cheeks (Well , I don’t know . . .)

Tired
-Rubbing his eyes, eyes staring into space, raised eyebrows (Raising my eyebrows helps keep my eyes open.)
-Yawning and/or stretching (I am tired—see? Tired! Too tired to care!)
-Almost nodding off and jerking awake (Cannot. Stay. Awa—snnnnurzzzz.)
-Gritting teeth to stay awake (Cannot—yawn—dang it!)

Thoughtfulness/Thinking
-Steepling fingers (I will think better if I center myself and focus.)
-Pinching nose, sometimes with closed eyes (Focus, focus—I just need to focus.)
-Tugging on an ear (This will help me remember!)
-Stroking a real or imaginary beard (People with beards look smart.)
-Furrowed brow, narrowed eyes, sometimes tilted head and pressing lips together (I can’t see it—I will try harder!)
-Resting his chin on his hand (Thinking makes my head heavy.)

Triumphant
-Hands clenched and held above head while grimacing (She is invincible!)
-Head tilted back with a yell (She is fierce!)
-Arm pumping in the air, jumping (Woohoo!)

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Happy Writing!

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Comments

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Stewart: I hope you find it helpful! :)

David: I was reading Joe Abercrombie when I wrote this post! Coincidence? ;)

Wow, comprehensive post! The best current writer at body language, for mine, is Joe Abercrombie. His fight scenes especially are masterpieces.

Cool--a cheat sheet!

*yoink* :)

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