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The People We Meet – Using Body Language To Show Characters’ Emotions by Kathy Otten

Welcome to 2019.  Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?

Every year, along with my new list of personal goals, I create a list of writing goals; among them, ways to improve my craft.

One of the first elements of craft we’re taught is to show, not tell our stories.  In a rough draft, an author might write the sentence; Tom was angry. This tells the reader how the character Tom, felt at that moment.  In order to show this emotion on the page, the writer might strengthen that sentence and show us Tom slamming the door.


While this works, let’s refine it some more.

How would a man show his anger differently from a woman? A child? A teen in a happy home? A teen living on the street?

As the author comes to know their character, that character’s reaction to those life situations that generate anger, will be based on the author’s knowledge of their character’s age, gender, personality, back story, and his or her social environment. No two characters will react the same, and allowing the reader to watch those layers of personality unfold throughout the story is a key element in connecting your characters to your reader in a believable way.

Think about your viewpoint character.  That character might be a CEO, meeting with company stock-holders, a teacher in a classroom of teenagers, or a detective questioning a witness.

Think about the sentence, Tom looked angry. Instead, think about how Tom looked. What does your viewpoint character see in Tom to draw the conclusion he is angry? How does your character’s body react to that anger?

As authors, we should never tell the reader whether or not to like a character. In the same way we form judgments and opinions of people based on our interpretation of their body language, our characters, and hence the reader, form opinions based on the subtle nuances of body language the writer puts down on the page.


So what is body language?

Body language is the non-verbal communication of feelings, attitudes, and moods.  It can be shown through body posture, facial expression, eye movement, and personal proxemics—which is the amount of space people find comfortable between themselves and others.

Body language can be conscious or unconscious.  It is partly inborn, such as a smile to express happiness, and is consistent among all humans.  It can vary according to environment. Tom might slam the door and swear at home, but depending on his character, he won’t do it at a board meeting.  Body language is also dependent on societal groups and cultures. For instance, Greek men are more open about kissing other heterosexual men than American men.

Our ancestors needed to be able to read the body language of not only other humans, but animals, in order to know whether to trust, defend or attack.

Women have a better perception and interpretation of body language than men, probably because they needed good body language perception to reduce their vulnerability to males and the threat not only to their own lives but their children.

The young also tend to display more obvious gestures because they are naturally energetic, uninhibited and subtle.


Interpreting body language also depends on context.

Think about seeing someone with a rapid pulse, breathing heavily and perspiring. Have they just returned from a run? Are they sitting at their desk at work? Maybe they are in an interrogation room at the police station.

Body language also involves touch, how we touch ourselves and others. How close to we physically get to people depends on our level of intimacy with that person.

Think about people in your family, the people you work with, or strangers on the street. What level of intimacy to you allow with each person?

How does your character interact with their environment?  Do they fiddle with the pens on their desk, smoke, twirl their glasses, fuss with their clothing?

As you write, think about how your character behaves in different settings, in various circumstances, and with other characters. Replace some of your speech tags and instead use body language to show your story and create an emotional connection between your characters and your readers.

Love this?

Kathy is teaching a 4-week class where she will walk you through the details of body language and how to use it in your writing to expand your characters and give them more depth. Don’t miss this great class!

A Civil War Romance from Kathy Otten and The Wild Rose Press

A Place In Your Heart

Gracie McBride isn’t looking for love; she’s looking for respect. But in this man’s world of Civil War medicine, Gracie is expected to maintain her place changing beds and writing letters. Her biggest nemesis is the ward surgeon, Doctor Charles Ellard, who seems determined to woo her with arrogant kisses and terrible jokes.

Charles is an excellent surgeon. He assumed he would be well received by an army at war. He was not. Friendless and alone, he struggles to hide the panic attacks that plague him while the only person who understands him is a feisty Irish nurse clearly resolved to keep him at a distance.

But Charles is sent to the battlefield, and Gracie is left with a wounded soldier, a box of toys, and a mystery which can only be solved by the one man she wishes could love her, both as a woman and a nurse.


A Place In Your Heart is available at Amazon


Kathy Otten is the published author of multiple historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. She is also published in contemporary romance ...