Body language is essential in creating believable characters. It's the subtle things like a smile in just the right place of a conversation, or a small touch of the hand that can change the whole way a reader perceives a character. When you show a character through their body language, you are allowing the reader to size up the character without spoon feeding information that might push the reader from the story. The reader wants to feel intelligent as he or she comes to their own conclusions. It's the writer's job (you) to be invisible enough to help lay out the signs or clues that get the reader to where you want them to go.
Check out some of these statistics...
55% of communication consists of body language
38% is expressed through voice
7% is communicated through words
Yeah, I was kind of shocked by the only 7% is communicated through words. Kind of made me feel small and unimportant with all my writing, which then made me realize that it's all in how you express those words. That's the key ingredient to really great writing. So my next thought was... how do my own characters express themselves?
There are 4 major ways for a character to use body language to express themselves...
- Facial Expressions
- Body Posture
What are the eyes of your character saying? Is your character fidgeting from boredom or restlessness? Is your character sitting forward to soak up everything another character is telling them? Or is your character in someone's face for something that made them angry?
Also consider this... does your character's actions match their words? Readers will believe body language and tone over what someone says. If a character says they're open to a new idea, but crosses their arms or turns their body away, what the reader really sees is a character who is closed and rejecting the message, but not willing to admit the truth. This sort of "mixed signal" can be used to add to the character, or story. It can also take away from the character and story, if not done correctly.
When using body language it usually helps to build it up to a series of actions, because some body languages (like smiles, fidgeting, or no eye contact) can mean several different things. Writers should give about 5 clues within a scene to show context of an emotion (through body language) without coming out and saying it. This will help lead the reader to make his own conclusion.
Body language is your character. Make sure that that all body language is important, if it isn't, cut it out. Also get rid of overly used gestures, or body language like... she sighed or he winked. Find new or better ways for your character to express themselves. Remember that too much of a good thing can tip your hand to make the writer visible to the reader. Great writers disappear as their story comes alive.