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.)


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:


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.]

When you’re expecting the weird

Sometimes, the more I know about a topic, the less skeptical I am about new things in that field. I’m expecting them to be weird.

One category is deep sea animals. I’ve been learning about them for a long time, and when I started, nearly anything could blow my mind. I’d look up sources all the time because they all sounded fake. Even finding a source, I’d be skeptical. There’s no reason for anyone to photoshop that many pictures of that sea slug, sure, but on the other hand, LOOK AT IT.



Nowadays, I’ve seen even more deep sea critters, and I’m much less skeptical. I think you could make up basically any wild thing and I’d believe it. You could say: “NOAA discovered a fish with two tails that only mates on Thursdays.” Or “National Geographic wrote about this deep-sea worm that’s as smart as a dog and fears death.” And I’d be like “yeah, that seems reasonable, I buy it.”

Here’s a test. Five of these animals are real, and three are made up.

  1. A jellyfish that resembles a three-meter-diameter circular bedsheet
  2. A worm that, as an adult, has no DNA.
  3. A worm that branches as it ages, leaving it with one head but hundreds of butts.
  4. A worm with the body plan of a squid.
  5. A sponge evolved to live inside of fish gills.
  6. A sea slug that lives over a huge geographic region, but only in a specific two-meter wide range of depth.
  7. A copepod that’s totally transparent at some angles, and bright blue from others.
  8. A shrimp that shuts its claws so fast it creates a mini sonic boom.

(Answers at bottom of page. Control-F “answers” to jump there.)

Of course, I’m only expecting to be surprised about information in a certain sphere. If you told me that someone found a fish that had a working combustion engine, or spoke German, I’d call bullshit – because those things are clearly outside the realm of zoology.

Still, there’s stuff like this. WHY ARE YOU.

Some other categories where I have this:

  • Modern American politics
  • Florida Man stories
  • Head injury symptoms/aftermath
  • Places extremophiles live

Note that these aren’t cases where I tend to underapply skepticism – these are cases where, most of the time, not being skeptical works. If people were making up fake Florida Man stories, I’d have to start being skeptical again, but until then, I can rely on reality being stranger than I expect.

What’s the deal? Well, a telling instance of the phenomena, for me, is archaeal viruses.

  • Some of these viruses are stable and active in 95° C water.
  • This archaeal virus is shaped like a wine bottle.
  • This one is shaped like a lemon.
  • This one appears to have evolved independently and shares no genes with other viruses.
  • This one GROWS ON ITS OWN, outside of a host.
  • This one builds seven-sided pyramids on the surfaces of cells it infects.

It has something to do with either lysis or summoning very small demons. [Source]
These are really surprising to me because I know a little bit about viruses. If you know next to nothing about viruses, a lemon-shaped virus probably isn’t that mind-blowing. Cells are sphere-shaped, right? A lemon shape isn’t that far from a sphere shape. The ubiquitous spaceship-shaped T4 is more likely to blow your mind.

Don’t worry – it comes in peace, unless you happen to be E. coli. [Source]
Similarly, if you were a planet-hopping space alien first visiting earth, and your alien buddy told you about the giant garbage-bag shaped jellyfish, that probably wouldn’t be mind-blowing – for all you know, everything on earth looks like that. All information in that category is new to you, and you don’t have enough context for it to seem weird yet.

At the same time, if I studied archaeal viruses intensely, I’d probably get a sense of the diversity in the field. Some strange stuff like the seven-sided pyramids would still come along as it’s discovered, but most new information would fit into my models.

This suggests that for certain fields, there’s going to be some amount of familiarity where I’m surprised by all sorts of things, but on the tail ends, I either don’t know enough to be surprised – or already know everything that might surprise me. In the middle, I have just enough of a reference class that it frequently gets broken – and I end up concluding that everything is weird.

(Answers: 2, 5, and 6 are fictional. Details on the sea tarp jellyfish, the reverse hydra worm, the squid worm, the sea sapphire, and the mantis shrimp.)

The bipartisan model of androgynous gender presentation

[Content warning: Talking about ways that people automatically gender other people. If this is a tough topic for you, be careful. Also, a caveat that I’m talking descriptively, not prescriptively, about people’s unconscious and instant ways of determining gender, and not A) what they might actually think about someone’s gender, and certainly not B) what anyone’s gender actually is.

Nonetheless, if I got anything wildly or offensively inaccurate, please do let me know.]

When you try and figure out a stranger’s gender, you don’t just use one physical trait – you observe a variety of traits, mentally assign them all evidence weights, compare them to any prior beliefs you might have on the situation, and then – usually – your brain spits out a “man!” or “woman!” This is mostly unconscious and happens in under a second.

This is called “Bayesian reasoning” and it’s really cool that your brain does it automatically. Most people have some male, some female, and some neutral signals going on. ‘Long hair’ is usually a female signal, but if it’s paired with a strong jawline, heavy brows, and a low voice on someone who’s 6’5”, you’ll probably settle on ‘male’. Likewise, ‘wearing a suit’ is usually a pretty good male signal, but if the person is wearing makeup and is working at a hotel where everyone is wearing suits, you’re more likely to think ‘female’.

Then there are people with androgynous gender presentations – the people who you look at and your brain stumbles, or else does spit out an answer, but with doubt. (As a cis but not-particularly-gender-conforming woman, this is people around me all the time.) When people are read as ‘androgynous’, I think they’re doing three possible things:

  1. Strong male and female signals. Think a dress and a beard, or a high-pitched voice and being 6’4” and muscular, or wearing a suit and eyeliner. Genderfuck is an aesthetic that goes for this.

Left: Drag queen Conchita Wurst. Right: Game of Thrones character Brienne of Tarth.

2) No gender signals. Not giving gender cues, or trying to fall in the middle of any that exist on a spectrum. I think of this one as usually involving de-emphasized secondary sex characteristics – flat chest, no facial hair – which might also mean a youthful, neotenous look. Or maybe a voice or hips or height or whatever that’s sort of in the middle. Some (but not all!) androgynous models have something like this going on.

Left: Model Natacha S. Right: Zara’s Ungendered fashion line.

Fashion-wise, every now and then a company that rolls out a gender-neutral clothing line is criticized because all the clothing is baggy, formless, and vaguely masculine. (See comments below on why this may be.) I think these bland aesthetics are going for ‘No Signals’ – baggy clothing conceals secondary sex characteristics, the plain colors call to mind sort of a blank slate.

3) Signals for Something Else. For a trait that would normally signal gender, signal something else entirely. Long hair is for women, short hair is for men, but a green mohawk isn’t either of those. You might speak in a high-pitched voice, or a low-pitched voice, or in falsetto with an accent. Men wear pants, women wear dresses, but nobody wears this:

Pictured: I don’t know what these people are signalling, but it’s sure not a binary gender. [New York Fashion Week, 2015.]

What does this imply?

I’m not sure.

I expect that people who do No Signals get less shit from bigots (harassment, violence, weird looks) than people in the other two categories (Mixed Signals or Signaling Something Else.) I would imagine that bigots are more likely to figure that No Signals people are clearly a binary gender that they just can’t read, whereas Mixed Signals people are perceived as intentionally going against the grain.

This is unfortunate, because if you want to be read as androgynous, it’s way easier to just do Mixed Signals than to conceal secondary sex characteristics in order to do No Signals. (Especially if your secondary sex characteristics happen to be more pronounced.) Fortunately, society in general seems to be moving away from ‘instant gender reads are your real gender’, and towards ‘there are lots of different ways to do gender and gender presentation’.

Signaling Something Else people probably also get harassment and weird looks, but possibly more because they’re non-conforming in ways that don’t have to do with gender.

Male Bias in Gender Interpretation

Also! There is a known trend that suggests that people are more likely to read ambiguous traits as male than female. This is probably because ‘male’ is seen as ‘the default’, because culture. See: non-pet animals, objects other than cars and ships. This seems to have originally come from Kessler & McKenna (1978), and has held up in a few studies. I’m not sure if this rule is completely generalizable, but here’s a few things it might imply:

You may actually have to have more feminine traits than masculine ones to hit the Confusion Zone. For gender-associated traits that go on a spectrum – chest size, voice pitch, some metric of facial shape, etc., it might look like this:


Of course, there are also cases where people think a trait is associated with gender when, really, it’s not. That still might mean something like this:


(See also.)

One conclusion I’ve heard drawn from this: This explains why it’s often harder for trans women to get automatically gendered correctly, than for trans men. A trans woman has to conceal or remove a lot of ‘male’ traits to get read as female. Trans men, meanwhile, don’t have to go as far to hit ‘male’.

Even gender distribution world

Let’s say there are 100 gendered traits (wearing a dress or pants, long or short hair, facial hair or no facial hair, etc.) Now let’s imagine a population where everybody in this population has the “male” or “female” version of each trait assigned independently and randomly. If the male-bias principle generalizes, you’re likely to read more than half of these people are male.

Regional differences?

Gender presentation, and thus how you read gender, is deeply rooted in culture! If you see someone in garb from a culture you’re not familiar with, and you can’t tell their gender, it’s quite possible that they’re still doing intentional gender signals – just not in a way you can read.

Even for similar cultures, this might be different. When I was in England, people called me ‘sir’ all the time. This doesn’t happen often in Seattle. I have three theories for why:

  1. People in England have different gendered trait distributions for deciding gender. Maybe in England, just seeing ‘tall’ + ‘short hair’ + ‘wearing a collared shirt’ is enough to tip the scale to ‘man.’
  2. Where I was in England was just more culturally conservative than Seattle, and if I spent more time in, say, small towns in Southern or Midwest US, I’d also be ‘sir’d’ more.
  3. People in England are more likely to say ‘sir’ or ‘m’am’ at all. So if you were to ask a bunch of Seattle and England strangers if I was a man or a woman, the same percent would say ‘man’, but I wouldn’t notice in Seattle.

I think 2 or 3 are more likely, but 1 would be interesting as well.

Post Notes

  • Ben Hoffman pointed out that this maps to classifications for people who don’t consistently vote for a major political party. Mixed Signals people are like swing voters or nonpartisan voters. No Signals people are political moderates or don’t vote at all. Signaling Something Else people are, like, anarchists. Or Pirate Party members.
  • The Bayesian Evidence model of gender identification doesn’t only apply when the result is inconclusive – often your brain will, say, match someone as ‘man’, but also observe that they’re doing some non-masculine things.

(The first thing to consider in this case is that your brain may be wrong, and they may not actually be a man at all.)

  • Anyways, what gender people are and what they signal to the world is more complex than an instantaneous read, and this is an important distinction. For instance, even when people look at me and think ‘woman’, they can tell that I’m not doing standard femininity either.
  • If you’re trying to cultivate auto-gendering people less often, I suspect that training your subconscious to quickly separate whatever traits from gender would be useful. Finding efficient ways to do this is left as an exercise to the reader.
  • It’s obviously possible to train your brain to look at someone and mentally assign them a gender other than the instantaneous response. I’ve also heard stories of people looking at people and automatically going “nonbinary”. I suspect that if you grew up in binary-gendered society, as so many of us tragically did, this is a thing you developed later in life. Maybe you learned this as a possible answer to the “confusion on gendering androgynous people” brain-state.