Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Characters and Talking Without Words

Body action tells the truth more than words spoken. It can get people in trouble as easily as what they say. As you write fiction, keep this thought in mind as you bring your characters to life with action beats. Don’t neglect this effective tool to deepen characterization and emotion and add greater conflict to your stories.

Before I became a novelist, I was a freelance writer for Christian magazines and for Sunday school materials. Two of my biggest buyers were magazines on parenting issues and others written on teen issues. An article I wrote, Talking Without Words (published first in Teenage Christian and sold as a reprint four times after it first appeared), illustrates how important body language is in communication. The article opened with this story:

“What’s wrong with you, man?” Derek stood beside his friend Brad in the school cafeteria. From Brad’s expression, Derek knew he was angry.

“I can’t believe I got a detention. My folks will sure be bugged; I’ll probably be grounded — and I didn’t do anything.”

“Huh? Why would ya get a detention if you didn’t do anything?”

“That’s what I wanna know.” Brad sat for a moment, his head lowered as if thinking about what had happened. Finally he lifted his head. “Mr. Brownley passed back our math tests, and I got a D. I don’t see how I could get a D, but I just took the paper without saying anything. Then, he gave me a detention.”

“Hey, man there’s got to be more to it than that. Show me; I’ll be Mr. Brownley.”

Derek took a piece of paper from his notebook and handed it to Brad. Brad jerked the paper from his hand, looked at it, wadded it up, and pitched it, like a basketball, into a trash container. Then he folded his arms across his chest and stared at Derek.

“You better do that in front of a mirror, pal. I think you’ll see why you got the detention.”

Following the story scenario, I continued with this paragraph:
This illustration shows that Brad communicated a lot to Mr. Brownley without using words. It is often through your actions—called body language—that you get in trouble or cause yourself problems. More than half of communication comes from non-verbal responses. The words you say are not nearly as meaningful as the tone, inflection, and the body language you use when you say the words. These non-verbal messages say what you really mean. So it is important that you become aware of your body language, so that you present yourself to others in a positive way.

Looking at non-verballanguage in fiction:
Obviously, authors need to be aware of these important means of non-verbal communication when creating characters and stories. What kind of non-verbal behaviors am I talking about. I’ll stress five ways your characters communicate without speaking: silence, posture and gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and space, meaning closeness or distance from the other character. Each one speaks as loudly as your character’s words.

It’s strange that silence can cause a problem, but it does. If a character asks a question, he is looking for an answer. If he receives a blank stare, the non-verbal message has said something, such as: I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about it, or it’s none of your business. It could be those responses or many others. This leaves the character who asked the question hanging and causes tension. This works well if you’re trying to create tension between the two people. In a romance, if the hero says I love you to the heroine and her response is silence, I don’t have to tell you how that would come across. Again it creates tension. Should he probe for an answer or back away? If a character’s boss asks him why you did or didn’t do something and his response is silence, the boss could easily become perturb. He expects an answer. Silence can mean that the character doesn’t know, or it says he is guilty, angry, belligerent, or uncooperative. When writing, if you’re not trying to create tension, give an answer. If you’re using the technique for tension, good for you.

Gestures and posture
As you saw in the scenario above, Brad’s anger is shown in his quickness and abruptness body responses. If your character slams a door or drawer or if he pounds his fist against a table, readers learn as much as they might from hearing words and the action is far more dramatic. By crumbling up his math paper and tossing it in the wastebasket, Brad was telling his teacher he did not value his grading system or the mathematics assignment. Your character gesturing her hands in the air or making a fist gives a negative response. A gentle pat or brush of a hand against someone’s arm gives the opposite response. It’s one of understanding and concern. Give careful thought when you create your characters’ gestures to make sure they are conveying the right message to the reader. Try to be original, Brad’s tossing the paper into the wastebasket is different from stomping his foot or making a fist. It fits into the storyline and doesn’t distract yet adds a deeper emotion.

Along with gestures, your characters posture shows her attitude and mood. A character walking with her chin touching her chest will arouse other characters’ and readers’ to think she is uncomfortable, angry, or perhaps that she has no self-esteem. A character who walks tall with her back straight and head held high shows confident But too high and too straight can appear forceful or even confrontational. Allow your characters posture to illustrate his or her mood or attitude with a visual description.

Facial Expressions

The most obvious method to convey meaning to words is through facial expressions, but remember that sometimes we make faces that we don’t realize, and these expressions tell the truth to those viewing our face even though we can’t see ourselves. An eye-blink or a tightened jaw can send a message of surprise or upset. Winces, narrowed eyes and tightened lips are less common that a furrowed brow or a smile, so use the broad spectrum of your characters’ faces to add deeper meaning to the emotional palette of your story.
Trying to cover a person’s true feelings by forcing a specific facial expression can confuse characters, for example: when the character says one thing but means something else. The words and expressions don’t match — she says yes with her words, but her face and body say no. This sends a mixed message to other characters and can cause confusion and again results in tension. Use this technique to create unanswered questions or to deepen conflict.

Eye Contact
Eyes show your character’s emotions just as they do in real life. For example, when you look in the eyes of that special person in your life, you show the emotion of love. Eyes can literally become bloodshot in anger. Blood vessel break and pupils dilate. Even the blink, mentioned above, is telling. Eyes are indicators of self-confidence. If your character looks at someone with direct eye contact, she appear confident and assured; if she avoids looking into the person’s eyes, she will seem unsure or disinterested, and even worse, she might appear guilty. Use reference of eye contact in key scenes where the truth must be learned by a character. In a police procedural, the accused might deny the crime, but his eyes give clues that somehow he is involved. In romance, a young woman may say no to a marriage proposal, but her eyes say yes, leaving the hero wanting to know the reason for her refusal. This adds interest and foreshadowing of what’s to come.

The closeness or distance of one character from another makes an impact in fiction. Notice in yourself when you are interested in a conversation or when you agree with what someone says, you lean forward. You show your approval of what they say by your physical nearness to them. If someone is having a problem, you communicate sympathy by putting your arm around the person or placing your hand on your friend’s shoulder. You do not need to say words; your meaning is clear. If you like a person, you move toward him. If you don’t care for him, you pull back or move away. This forms a type of barricade. When your character distances himself from another character by stepping away or pulling back, he is sending a message that he doesn’t want to hear what is being said, he doesn’t care or he doesn’t agree. Arms crossed in front of a person’s chest is similar barricade that sends a negative message.

On the other hand, fear of being rejected in a romance or of being involved in a suspense can cause a character to step back or avoid another character in order not to be hurt or to be notice. This is done out of fear of being hurt or suspected. When using this technique, write the action so it is clear to the reader but not necessarily to the character. You can do this by using introspection of the character who is using the body action either in the scene or later in the sequel.

By being aware of non-verbal communication as you write your novels, you can use it to add interest to your work and to alert your reader and/or other characters in the book of the unspoken message. Remember that more than half of what you say is seen — not heard. So give the same percentage to your characters and let them do a lot of talking without words.


Memzie said...

Thank you so much for this post! It is very helpful! Your hard work is appreciated.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Memzie - Thanks so much for letting me know you found this post helpful.

Wishing you blessings on your writing.