Fictional body language

Here’s something weird.

A common piece of advice for fiction writers is to “show, not tell” a character’s emotions. It’s not bad advice. It means that when you want to convey an emotional impression, describe the physical characteristics instead.

The usual result of applying this advice is that instead of a page of “Alice said nervously” or “Bob was confused”, you get a vivid page of action: “Alice stuttered, rubbing at her temples with a shaking hand,” or “Bob blinked and arched his eyebrows.”

The second thing is certainly better than the first thing. But a strange thing happens when the emotional valence isn’t easily replaced with an easily-described bit of body language. Characters in these books whose authors follow this advice seem to be doing a lot more yawning, trembling, sighing, emotional swallowing, groaning, and nodding than I or anyone I talk to does in real life.

It gets even stranger. These characters bat their lashes, or grip things so tightly their knuckles go white, or grit their teeth, or their mouths go dry. I variously either don’t think I do those, or wouldn’t notice someone else doing it.

Blushing is a very good example, for me. Because I read books, I knew enough that I could describe a character blushing in my own writing, and the circumstances in which it would happen, and what it looked like. I don’t think I’d actually noticed anyone blush in real life. A couple months after this first occurred to me, a friend happened to point out that another friend was blushing, and I was like, oh, alright, that is what’s going on, I guess this is a thing after all. But I wouldn’t have known before.

To me, it was like a piece of fictional body language we’ve all implicitly agreed represents “the thing your body does when you’re embarrassed or flattered or lovestruck.” I know there’s a particular feeling there, which I could attach to the foreign physical motion, and let the blushing description conjure it up. It didn’t seem any weirder than a book having elves.

(Brienne has written about how writing fiction, and reading about writing fiction, has helped her get better at interpreting emotions from physical cues. They certainly are often real physical cues – I just think the points where this breaks down are interesting.)

Online

There’s another case where humans are innovatively trying to solve the problem of representing feelings in a written medium, which is casual messaging. It’s a constantly evolving blend of your best descriptive words, verbs, emoticons, emojis, and now stickers and gifs and whatever else your platform supports. Let’s draw your attention to the humble emoticon, a marvel of written language. A handful of typographic characters represent a human face – something millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned our brains to interpret precisely.

(In some cases, these are pretty accurate: :) and ^_^ represent more similar things than :) and ;), even though ^_^ doesn’t even have the classic turned-up mouth of representation smiles. Body language: it works!)

:)

:|

:<

Now let’s consider this familiar face:

:P

And think of the context in which it’s normally found. If someone was talking to you in person and told a joke, or made a sarcastic comment, and then stuck their tongue out, you’d be puzzled! Especially if they kept doing it! Despite being a clear representation of a human face, that expression only makes sense in a written medium.

I understand why something like :P needs to exist: If someone makes a joke at you in meatspace, how do you tell it’s a joke? Tone of voice, small facial expressions, the way they look at you, perhaps? All of those things are hard to convey in character form. A stuck-out tongue isn’t, and we know what it means.

The ;) and :D emojis translate to meatspace a little better, maybe. Still, what’s the last time someone winked slyly at you in person?

You certainly can communicate complex things by using your words [CITATION NEEDED], but especially when in casual conversations, it’s nice to have expressive shortcuts. I wrote a bit ago:

Facebook Messenger’s addition of choosing chat colors and customizing the default emoji has, to me, made a weirdly big difference to what it feels like to use them. I think (at least with online messaging platforms I’ve tried before) it’s unique in letting you customize the environment you interact with another person (or a group of people) in.

In meatspace, you might often talk with someone in the same place – a bedroom, a college dining hall – and that interaction takes on the flavor of that place.

Even if not, in meatspace, you have an experience in common, which is the surrounding environment. It sets that interaction apart from all of the other ones. Taking a walk or going to a coffee shop to talk to someone feels different from sitting down in your shared living room, or from meeting them at your office.

You also have a lot of specific qualia of interacting with a person – a deep comfort, a slight tension, the exact sense of how they respond to eye contact or listen to you – all of which are either lost or replaced with cruder variations in the low-bandwidth context of text channels.

And Messenger doesn’t do much, but it adds a little bit of flavor to your interaction with someone besides the literal string of unicode characters they send you. Like, we’re miles apart and I may not currently be able to hear your voice or appreciate you in person, but instead, we can share the color red and send each other a picture of a camel in three different sizes, which is a step in that direction.

(Other emoticons sometimes take on their own valences: The game master in an online RPG I played in had a habit of typing only “ : ) ” in response when you asked him a juicy question, which quickly filled players with a sense of excitement and foreboding. I’ve tried using it since then in other platforms, before realizing that doesn’t actually convey that to literally anyone else. Similarly, users of certain websites may have a strong reaction to the typographic smiley “uwu”.)

Reasoning from fictional examples

In something that could arguably be called a study, I grabbed three books and chose some arbitrary pages in them to look at how character’s emotions are represented, particularly around dialogue.

Lirael by Garth Nix:

133: Lirael “shivers” as she reads a book about a monster. She “stops reading, nervously swallows, and reads the last line again”, and “breaths a long sigh of relief.”

428: She “nods dumbly” in response to another character, and stares at an unfamiliar figure.

259: A character smiles when reading a letter from a friend.

624: Two characters “exchange glances of concern”, one “speaks quickly”.

Most of these are pretty reasonable. I think the first one feels overdone to me, but then again, she’s really agitated when she’s reading the book, so maybe that’s reasonable? Nonetheless, flipping through, I think that this is Garth Nix’s main strategy. The characters might speak “honestly” or “nervously” or “with deliberation” as well, but when Nix really wants you to know how someone’s feeling, he’ll show you how they act.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman:

First page I flipped to didn’t have any.

364: A character “smiles”, “makes a moue”, “smiles again”, “tips her head to one side”. Shadow (the main character) “feels himself beginning to blush.”

175: A character “scowls fleetingly.” A different character “sighs” and his tone changes.

The last page also didn’t have any.

Gaiman does more laying out a character’s thoughts: Shadow imagines how a moment came to happen, or it’s his interpretation that gives flavor – “[Another character] looked very old as he said this, and fragile.”

Earth by David Brin:

First two pages I flipped to didn’t have dialogue.

428: Characters “wave nonchalantly”, “pause”, “shrug”, “shrug” again, “fold his arms, looking quite relaxed”, speak with “an ingratiating smile”, and “continue with a smile”.

207: Characters “nod” and one ‘plants a hand on another’s shoulder”.

168: “Shivers coursed his back. Logan wondered if a microbe might feel this way, looking with sudden awe into a truly giant soul.” One’s “face grows ashen”, another “blinks.” Amusingly, “the engineer shrugged, an expressive gesture.” Expressive of what?

Brin spends a lot of time living in characters’ heads, describing their thoughts. This gives him time to build his detailed sci-fi world, and also gives you enough of a picture of characters that it’s easy to imagine their reactions later on.

How to use this

I don’t think this is necessarily a problem in need of a solution, but fiction is trying to represent the way real people might act. Even of the premise of your novel starts with “there’s magic”, it probably doesn’t segue into “there’s magic and also humans are 50% more physically expressive, and they are always blushing.” (…Maybe the blushing thing is just me.) There’s something appealing about being able to represent body language accurately.

The quick analysis in the section above suggests at least three ways writers express how a fictional character is feeling to a reader. I don’t mean to imply that any is objectively better than the other, although the third one is my favorite.

1) Just describe how they feel. “Alice was nervous”, “Bob said happily.”

This gives the reader information. How was Alice feeling? Clearly, Alice was nervous. It doesn’t convey nervousness, though. Saying the word “nervous” does not generally make someone nervous – it takes some mental effort to translate that into nervous actions or thoughts.

2) Describe their action. A character’s sighing, their chin stuck out, their unblinking eye contact, their gulping. Sheets like these exist to help.

I suspect these work by two ways:

  1. You can imagine yourself doing the action, and then what mental state might have caused it. Especially if it’s the main character, and you’re spending time in their head anyway. It might also be “Wow, Lirael is shivering in fear, and I have to be really scared before I shiver, so she must be very frightened,” though I imagine that making this inference is asking a lot of a reader.
  2. You can visualize a character doing it, in your mental map of the scene, and imagine what you’d think if you saw someone doing it.

Either way, the author is using visualization to get you to recreate being there yourself. This is where I’m claiming some weird things like fictional body language develop.

3) Use metaphor, or describe a character’s thoughts, in such a way that the reader generates the feeling in their own head.

Gaiman in particular does this quite skillfully in American Gods.

[Listening to another character talk on and on, and then pause:] Shadow hadn’t said anything, and hadn’t planned to say anything, but he felt it was required of him, so said, “Well, weren’t they?”

[While in various degrees of psychological turmoil:] He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head.

[And:] He wished he could come back with something smart and sharp, but Town was already back at the Humvee, and climbing up into the car; and Shadow still couldn’t think of anything clever to say”

Also metaphors, or images:

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.

There must have been thirty, maybe even forty people in that hall, and now they were every one of them looking intently at their playing cards, or their feet, or their fingernails, and pretending as hard as they could not to be listening.

By doing the mental exercises written out in the text, by letting your mind run over them and provoke some images in your brain, the author can get your brain to conjure the feeling by using some unrelated description. How cool is that! It doesn’t actually matter whether, in the narrative, it’s occurred to Shadow that Chicago is happening like a migraine. Your brain is doing the important thing on its own.


(Possible Facebook messenger equivalents: 1) “I’m sad” or “That’s funny!” 2) Emoticons / emotive stickers, *hug* or other actions 3) Gifs, more abstract stickers.)


You might be able to use this to derive some wisdom for writing fiction. I like metaphors, for one.

If you want to do body language more accurately, you can also pay attention to exactly how an emotion feels to you, where it sits in your body or your mind – meditation might be helpful – and try and describe that.

Either might be problematic because people experience emotions differently – the exact way you feel an emotion might be completely inscrutable to someone else. Maybe you don’t usually feel emotions in your body, or you don’t easily name them in your head. Maybe your body language isn’t standard. Emotions tend to derive from similar parts of the nervous system, though, so you probably won’t be totally off.

(It’d also be cool if the reader than learned about a new way to feel emotions from your fiction, but the failure mode I’m thinking of is ‘reader has no idea what you were trying to convey.’)

You could also try people-watching (or watching TV or a movie), and examining how you know someone is feeling a certain way. I bet some of these are subtle – slight shifts in posture and expression – but you might get some inspiration. (Unless you had to learn this by memorizing cues from fiction, in which case this exercise is less likely to be useful.)


Overall, given all the shades of nuance that go into emotional valence, and the different ways people feel or demonstrate emotions, I think it’s hardly surprising that we’ve come up with linguistic shorthands, even in places that are trying to be representational.


[Header image is images from the EmojiOne 5.0 update assembled by the honestly fantastic Emojipedia Blog.]

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2 thoughts on “Fictional body language

  1. One of the most valuable things for me, wrt conveying body language, was learning screenwriting. Screenwriting is tricky because you’re trying to create a product that’s incredibly visual with just words. If you use too little description, your reader won’t be able to visualize the scene and will throw out your script for being boring. If you use too much, your actors will feel micromanaged and want to know why they’re sighing every three seconds. The length of your screenplay should correspond to the actual time it would take, and that correspondence is thrown off if you give actions the wrong amount of description.

    Liked by 1 person

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