In the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the comedians often perform a particular sketch, called “Moving People,” where they pull two audience members on stage. Two of the comedians act out a scene while the two audience members frantically try to pose them to match the dialogue. The comedians are as helpful and as flexible as thrift-shop mannequins. It’s always hilarious.
Some days, that’s exactly what it feels like I’m doing with my characters. “No, curse you, protagonist, you can’t take a sip of your coffee now! The love of your life just said she loves you! And you, antagonist, can’t you do something sinister with your body language in this scene? Snap the eraser off a pencil, or draw a mustache on the sleeping hero, or… I don’t know, crack your knuckles and loudly crunch your popcorn during a movie? Don’t just stand there and glower. That’s much too predictable.”
Other days, my characters are more willing to cooperate. They let me bend their knees just so, fold their arms in exactly the right defensive posture, nail their entrances with aplomb, or roll their eyes with the barest hint of apology.
Body language can be just as important as dialogue—and sometimes more so. The way a character reacts to an event with their movements, their expressions, their breath, their eyes – all of that can tell us more about the character than their words. It’s especially effective when the body language says the opposite of the words.
And if we expand “body language” to include actions, it gets even more interesting. A character can reveal a lot about their emotional state by the household chore they choose to do when they’re anxious, for example.
This is true in real life, as well as in writing, because studies tell us that body language can convey more than half of our communication with other people.
Here’s a wonderful little bit from Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job. In this scene, Charlie has just discovered that he may be Death. It’s lunchtime and he’s in the kitchen with his infant daughter, trying to wrap his head around this news:
“So I am Death,” Charlie said as he tried to construct a tuna-fish sandwich. “Daddy is Death, sweetie.” He checked the toast, not trusting the pop-up mechanism because the toaster people sometimes just like to fuck with you.
Seeing Charlie attempt to focus on a mundane task (sandwich-making) and blame his struggles on those vague, nameless, unreachable “toaster people” is a brilliant way to show that Charlie is, in fact, having a speck of trouble accepting his new role in a world he doesn’t fathom with mysterious enemies he can’t fight.
Sure, Moore could have just told us that Charlie was stunned by his new reality. But letting Charlie’s actions illustrate his inability to mesh his normal life with this revelation is so much more delicious, isn’t it? It’s that old “show, don’t tell” thing again.
There are plenty of resources for learning more about body language and communication, such as these: “Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language” from Writers Write, “How to Avoid Overused Body Language in Your Writing” by Sandra Gerth, and “Body Language: An Artistic Writing Tool” on the Writers in the Storm blog.
Even when our characters sometimes seem as malleable as jointless fiberglass mannequins—but less cooperative—it’s worth the effort. Show us a character’s emotional conflict through their body language and actions, rather than telling us about it, and we’ll follow you anywhere, through any scene, hanging on every word.