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Monday, August 26, 2019

Crafting a "Body Language Voice"




You'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 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 all the characters use 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.

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 character's should have their own body language to communicate.

This means moving beyond your go-to emotional indicators, and if you need help brainstorming new ones, I highly recommend Ackerman and Puglisi's book The Emotion Thesaurus as it surely has basically all you could need in it. In fact, if you write, I almost consider this book a must.

Instead of making all your characters roll their eyes when they are annoyed, try to mostly limit that to one character. 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'd almost never do that. However, I know a few people who do that precisely because they want the other person to notice, or simply because that is the way they release annoyance. So looking at who your character is can 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.

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.

I could go on with examples, but I think you get the idea.

Your characters should have their own body language voice.

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