Use Body Language to Characterise

There’s one thing that writers don’t use to their advantage as much as they should, and that’s body language.
Sometimes, it’s not what characters say that catches the reader’s attention, but how they react to others and the situations around them. Little things like facial expressions, gestures, ticks, movements and posture all convey silent communication; they help the reader understand and interpret what characters are really thinking and feeling.
Writers are good at telling us what the characters looks like, what they wear and what the characters say, but how they act and react to other characters and what goes on around them is rarely exploited. We might see snippets of movements between dialogue, known as narrative “beats”, but often what we get are stock gestures like licking of lips, tilting the head, hands in pockets, running hands through hair, smoothing of ties and so on. This doesn’t give the reader much depth or character insight.
Body language should allow the writer to show rather than tell. So without the need for dialogue, we can perceive a character’s mood or how they feel just from how they move and the carry themselves. Not only that, but it can reveal subtle characteristics and behaviour.
Rather than the stock gestures favoured by writers, use body language to your advantage to add depth to those narrative beats between dialogue. What does the character’s eyes show – how do they look at someone or something? What pallor is their skin? What are they doing with their hands? Are they shuffling on their feet, or completely rigid? Are their shoulders rounded, slouched or stiff? Is their expression soft, sharp or darkened?
Observe people during conversations and you’ll see how their expressions and bodies change and react throughout. They do a lot of pointing, hand waving and nodding and their facial expressions change constantly. Sometimes they have little ticks. How often have you seen someone rubbing their thighs as though to get rid of excess moisture on their palms? This is usually associated with nervousness. Or what about the wringing of hands? This ‘hand washing’ movement shows a degree of anxiety. If someone shrugs their head in a way that their shoulders rise up, like they’ve heard a loud bang, it means they feel submissive or threatened. A head that looks down is very submissive, or even frightened. There are so many ways you can show these characteristics, without the need for empty or clichéd gestures.
Body language is also useful during descriptions to show your character’s emotions and mood. How they move and react will show the reader the character’s demeanour, rather than telling them. It makes the descriptions more interesting, for example:
The loud voices pressed against her. She stopped for a moment and for the longest time her eyes remained closed; clamped shut against the noise outside her mind. She rubbed her fingertips together, and as the calm cloud descended, her shoulders dropped as though placated against the hiss.
From this description, the closed eyes and the rubbing of fingertips shows the reader this person is overwhelmed by the noise around her, perhaps making her nervous, and she takes a moment to compose herself, shown by the relaxed shoulders. The character’s mood and reactions to the noise are shown through her body language.
Just remember to avoid repetitive or stock gestures. Not every character will scowl or clench their fists when angry, (which is, itself, very clichéd), or stomp their feet. Every character will be different in the way they express themselves. The most effective body language signals to the reader are subtle ones.
Try not to overdo things; just like character descriptions, the reader doesn’t need to know the character’s inside leg measurement or other meaningless information. They just need little descriptive gems from time to time to add some depth to the emotions and feelings of characters, to make them real enough to your reader.
Remember, body language can:

  • Characterise by providing subtle insight to emotions, mood and feelings.
  • Add depth to descriptions.
  • Provide added depth to narrative beats.
  • Show characteristics and behaviour.
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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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