Monday, January 19, 2015

Expressing Character Emotions – Body Language and Gestures

In The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi write, “PHYSICAL SIGNALS are how our bodies outwardly respond when we experience emotion. The stronger the feeling, the more the body reacts and the less conscious control we have over movement. Because characters are unique, they will express themselves in a specific way.”

A writer who knows his or her characters well, understands how they move. When I volunteered at Taekwondo tournaments, I could pick out the masters by the way they walked, smooth as a jungle cat with no wasted motions. Contrast that with an adolescent boy who has just had a growth spurt. Now compare the masters and the gawky boys to a self-conscious, insecure middle school student who has to stand in front of the room and give a book report.

Character gestures include habits and mannerisms. Does your character make a specific motion when he’s nervous or scared, or better yet, when he’s bluffing? What does your character do when she remembers a painful incident from the past?

Body language is useful for describing the emotions of secondary characters. Unless the writer is using an omniscient point-of-view, the feelings of secondary characters can be expressed only through their dialog, deeds and gestures. The main character cannot know their thoughts. J.K. Rowling is a master of character gestures. Dobbie pulls his ears, Vernon Dursley’s mustache bristles, and Minerva McGonagall turns her back on Dolores Umbridge. These motions are concise and effective. The emotion is expressed without drawing the reader’s attention away from the feelings of the protagonist – which is what the scene is about.

Perhaps the most exquisite use of gestures is when the character cannot express the emotion in words. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, two teens with terminal cancer fall in love. Hazel Grace describes kissing Gus a few days before he dies. 

“When I got his face nose-touchingly close so that I could only see his eyes, I couldn’t tell he was sick. We kissed for a while then lay together listening to The Hectic Glow’s eponymous album, and eventually we fell asleep like that, a quantum entanglement of tubes and bodies.”

This is not a typical make-out scene from a young adult novel. Hazel Grace gets so close she “couldn’t tell he was sick.” The reader pretends with them for a moment that a happy ending is possible before returning to the “quantum entanglement of tubes and bodies.”

In Road to Tater Hill, Edith Hemmingway captures grief with a single gesture. When eleven-year-old Annie’s baby sister is stillborn, her mother sinks into depression. Her father is overseas, and her grandparents try to cope. Annie describes a rock she found near the river.
“It was about the size of one of Grandma’s loaves of homemade bread, only heavier – just the right weight for a newborn baby. I nestled it into the corner of my arm, the way I would have cradled Mary Kate. Not like a doll; I was too old for dolls. But when I closed my eyes and imagined that the rock was a baby, there was something about the weight and feel of it that filled the empty hole inside me. I held it close for a long time while the water rushed past, birds chattered in the branches above and a bee buzzed its way around the clusters of touch-me-nots.”

Annie can’t describe how sad and lonely she is. She can’t express how much she misses the baby sister she never knew. So she cradles a rock, and for an instant, the reader imagines with her that the baby was healthy.

Sometimes character gestures speak louder than words.

Expressing character emotion posts:
Body language and gestures (here)


Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Beautifully said with lovely examples. You're lengthening my To Read list (and that's good).

Ann Finkelstein said...

Thanks, Ruth. It has been fun to go back through these wonderful books searching for the passages I remembered.

Kristin Lenz said...

Yes, the examples are really helpful. The passage from Road to Tater Hill is especially lovely.

Ann Finkelstein said...

Thanks, Kristin. I highly recommend that book.