It is such a pleasure to host Kim Purcell today, who shares on her website that she often walks with a dog leash in one hand and a book in another. Her second novel, This is Not a Love Letter, (Disney-Hyperion) is out next week. You will want to read this book. Don’t take my word for it! Here’s what Tamara Ireland Stone, New York Times best-selling author of Every Last Word has to say: “Part love story, part mystery, this brave novel will make you feel, wonder, and think.” And click here to read the Kirkus starred review!
Character and the Body
I’d like to talk about body language and the importance of real and accurate body language. Often, when we think of including body language in our prose, we think of the clichés. Cliched body language often focuses on micro-movements. However, it’s not realistic. First, we often don’t notice these in real life, and also, people are very good at hiding what they’re feeling on their faces.
According to body language experts, our arms, hands, legs and feet are truth tellers. If body language is written accurately, it can actually trigger the limbic system of the reader to feel the emotions of the character. For example, a menacing character might reach his arm out and lean against a doorframe. We don’t know why, but we worry the character is in danger. This is because when an exit is blocked, our limbic systems jump into fight or flight.
When I’m writing a scene, I first try to get into the body of my character to connect emotionally and to understand how he/she would react. I try to think about his/her relative power in a scene. A character’s feeling of power can change how he or she moves. When we feel more power, we expand our bodies and expose our vulnerable areas – neck, belly and groin. If we’re trying to take power away from others, we expand into their personal space, spread our objects around, over-touch and block walkways and doorways with our bodies. When we feel less power, we contract and shield ourselves. For example, we might step behind a chair or pull a bag onto our lap. Many people don’t think of this as body language, but it is the most compelling form of body language in fiction.
I also like to consider every character’s feeling of comfort and attraction in a scene. When we’re comfortable with someone, we lean toward them, or touch them. We jiggle our feet and move our hands freely. When we’re not comfortable, we lean away or shield ourselves with an object. Our feet and hands pull away, point away or stop moving. We also do what’s called pacifying behavior: touching our faces, our hair, our clothing, rubbing our legs, pulling out eyebrow hair, petting a cat, fiddling with a clasp on our purse. We all do this, so it’s essential to know what your character does when she or he is uncomfortable.
To help with this, before I write, I meditate into my point-of-view character’s body. Often, I go for a walk and try to feel their body all around me. I don’t write until I’m seeing and feeling the world through their bodily experience. This helps me describe the characters’ body language and movements accurately, and also improves my character’s voice and adds to my multisensory description.
If you want to learn more about body language, I recommend former FBI agent, Joe Navarro’s books. Also, Jason Reynolds’ novels are masterful examples of the use of body language in fiction. Finally, you can play the coffee shop game in which you watch people from the lens of body language, what are their feelings of power and comfort?
Such a great observation, that the important body language is what our arms, legs, hands, and feet are doing.