Writing Body Language: Bringing Your Characters to Life

Body language is an essential part of bringing your characters to life, and yet, many writers struggle to find a balance between drawing no attention to the characters’ body language and obsessing over the way their characters move. If you don’t describe how your characters move in a scene, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to showcase their personality, while forcing them to move through emotional scenes like robots. Too much focus on body language, however, can come across as redundant, pointless, and boring.

If you struggle to convey realistic body language in your stories, don’t feel bad! Many other writers are in the same boat. With a little bit of help and direction, you’ll be adding subtle movements and gestures into your writing without even thinking about it in no time!

Why Body Language is Important in Writing

Nonverbal cues make up a large part of communication, so if you aren’t drawing attention to how your characters move and emote, your readers will be missing elements of what they’re communicating. 

Not only that, but body language has many important uses in stories, such as:

  • Keeping dialogue interesting
  • Setting the tone of the scene
  • Conveying emotion
  • Hinting at hidden emotions, deception, and true feelings
  • Hinting at relationships between characters, such as tension, romantic feelings, or distrust
  • Illustrating parts of a character’s personality

Finally, body language is a key element of utilizing the technique “Show, Don’t Tell.” By using body language to indicate certain emotions, relations, and personality traits, you are allowing readers to make inferences about these things themselves. This can help to further invest readers into your story by making them feel like they are playing a part in deciphering what is going on. It is also much more fun to read than statements like “he felt angry” or “he looked at her sadly.”

If you want some guidance on how else you can use this technique, check out my other article Show, Don’t Tell: What It Is and How to Use It.

Using Body Language to Enhance Dialogue

It’s no secret that long stretches of dialogue and lengthy conversations often feel like they’re dragging on. When characters are talking for more than a few pages, it can start to get really tiring. 

One of the ways you can combat this is by describing what the characters are doing as they are conversing with one another. If the conversation is tense, are your characters behaving nervously? Are they fidgeting? If they’re arguing, what are they doing with their hands? Are they gesturing wildly, or standing stiffly in one place? 

Not only does this narration give readers a refreshing break from the dialogue, but it also gives the characters’ words more meaning. You can add context to the conversation by showing how the characters are feeling, moving, and emoting. 

One of the easiest ways to seamlessly integrate body language into a dialogue-heavy scene is with action beats. If you want to know more about that, check out the article Action Beats: What They Are and How to Use Them.

How to Show Body Language for Different Emotions

Body language is one of the easiest ways to convey how a character is feeling, since different emotions can influence the ways a character moves and the gestures they use. Drawing attention to a character’s body language can be a subtle way of hinting at how they’re feeling.

It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone experiences or expresses emotions in exactly the same way. Keep your characters consistent, and always take their personality into account when writing their body language. For example, a particularly stoic character may not emote dramatically, while a nervous character could behave more exaggeratedly. 

Keep in mind that this article is focusing mostly on body language. If you want to know how to write about facial expression, you should check out How to Describe Facial Expressions in Writing next. 

Excited Body Language

Excitement can be an overwhelming emotion. Excited characters are likely to have an abundance of energy, and without a way to talk about their excitement, they may feel as if they are about to explode. 

Remember that energy is the most important element of portraying excitement, so bring a little extra energy into everything the character does—whether that’s stirring soup or stocking shelves.

To show that your characters are excited, you could have them:

  • Smile more
  • Gesture wildly
  • Talk a lot 
  • Take up a lot of extra space in a scene, by gesturing wildly, being loud, or drawing a lot of attention
  • Bounce around
  • Squeal
  • Cry happy tears
  • Laugh loudly
  • Scream
  • Be completely unable to sit still
  • Grab onto others, and even shake them around
  • Cross their arms or tuck their hands under their arms to control them
  • Place a hand on their chest
  • Clap their hands together
  • Cover their face with their hands or peek through their fingers
  • Randomly burst out giggling or laughing

If the character cannot properly contain or vent out their excitement, they can become restless, which results in fidgeting, speaking quickly or loudly, pacing around, and having trouble focusing. This is especially the case with children, who are often not emotionally mature enough to contain intense excitement. 

Excitement may also turn into anxiety as whatever the character is excited about draws near, since they may fear it won’t go as planned or meet their expectations. 

Happy Body Language

When a character is feeling happy, then they will be at peace with their surroundings, comfortable, and relaxed. There can also be a lot of overlap between happiness and excitement, however, so make sure you take that into consideration when determining how your character would be moving. 

Being in a good mood can result in your character having more patience for situations they otherwise wouldn’t, and their body language will reflect that. A happy character is likely going to be calm and receptive, and they may smile often, maintain eye contact longer, and gesture animatedly as they speak. They are also far more likely to touch others, especially those they are comfortable around or care about. 

To show that your character is feeling happy, you could have them: 

  • Prop their head up on one arm and stare lovingly at something or someone
  • Touch another character on the shoulder
  • Laugh often
  • Playfully shove or swat at another character
  • Lock their hands behind their head
  • Whistle or hum
  • Skip, or walk with more bounce than usual
  • Sit cross-legged or in a relaxed position
  • Twist, bounce, or wiggle
  • Clasp their hands together
  • Lean back or settle in a relaxed position
  • Angle their body (or even lean) towards another character
  • Speak with a bubbly tone

Each character is going to have different behaviors, and those behaviors may change depending on the context. A naturally playful character will likely express joy more bombastically, while a more reserved character may only show small signs, such as a small smile and a relaxed posture. 

Angry Body Language

Anger is one of the easiest emotions to identify with body language. Anger is powerful, and it can be hard to conceal, so it typically results in many telltale signs.

An angry character may:

  • Clench their fists
  • Scowl
  • Lean towards other characters or intrude on others’ personal space
  • Yell
  • Bare their teeth
  • Widen their stance and stand tensely
  • Bang on tables
  • Throw things, or pretend to do so
  • Gesture aggressively, such as waving fists, imitating striking something, or stomping
  • Tremble
  • Sweat
  • Cry, though maintain an aggressive stance
  • Spit while they speak
  • Scream
  • Point or jab at other characters
  • Get red in the face

Anger makes people want to lash out, so in addition to behaviors like those listed above, you can weave aggressive gestures into everything the character does. If you’ve ever seen anyone aggressively buckle a seatbelt or angrily organize a stack of mail, then you know what I mean. 

However, not every character is going to be willing to give in to their anger, and they may be more conscious of their own body language. Characters who want to control their anger will behave differently, though it should still be equally obvious to readers how the character is feeling. If a character is at work or otherwise in public, then they are much more likely to try to keep a lid on their anger. 

When a character is trying to control their anger, they may:

  • Force a deadpan expression
  • Breathe slowly and deliberately
  • Stand tensely, without moving much or walking around
  • Speak in a low tone or keep their voice down
  • Stand straight up with their shoulders squared
  • Freeze up
  • Cross their arms
  • Rub their face, temples, neck, hands, or arms
  • Cover their mouth
  • Pretend not to care about whatever is making them angry
  • Take a walk 

Angry body language is also very similar to tense or frustrated body language. A tense character may be more likely to freeze up or shut down, while a frustrated character will gradually get more aggressive if they cannot escape from what is frustrating them. 

Nervous Body Language

It is usually easy to tell when a character is nervous because they will have a lot of restless energy to deal with—which often results in a lot of fidgeting. Nervousness is a precursor to fear, but it also has a lot in common with embarrassment. 

Nervous characters are likely to:

  • Pick at things, such as their nails and lips or objects around them
  • Play with their hair
  • Tap on objects or other parts of their body
  • Chew on their lips or nails
  • Glance around the room and behind themselves
  • Move stiffly
  • Sway slightly as they stand
  • Sweat
  • Tremble, both with their body and their voice
  • Avoid eye contact with others 

Depending on what is making a character nervous, they might try to conceal their nerves. At a job interview or date, for example, a character is likely to try controlling their nerves by using a variety of coping mechanisms, such as focusing on their breathing, keeping their hands in their pockets, or talking constantly to avoid awkward silence. 

While we’re on the topic of controlling nerves, have your nervous character also engage in self-soothing behaviors when they are nervous, such as:

  • Running a hand through their own hair
  • Rubbing the back of their neck
  • Humming quietly
  • Sighing or clearing their throat
  • Pinching the bridge of their nose
  • Rubbing their hands together
  • Wrapping their arms around their upper body (or around their knees, if they are seated)

These motions are always going to be specific to the character, so pick a few per character and try to keep them consistent whenever the character in question is feeling nervous. 

Nervousness is about more than just body language. Check out How to Write a Nervous Character for more tips on writing about your character’s nerves. 

Scared Body Language

When a character gets scared, the first thing that will happen is the “fight or flight” response will be triggered, causing a release of adrenaline. This causes dilated pupils, trembling, quickened heartbeat, fast breathing, and flushed skin. Characters will suddenly experience a rush of energy, and they may react to stimuli (such as noise or touch) quickly—or even violently.

This adrenaline response is instinctive, and it allows a person to protect themself when they are in danger, by giving them the energy to flee or fight off the threat. However, your characters are likely to get spooked in situations where a threat isn’t easily identifiable—or even present at all. Characters could be scared of another person, a concept, a specific animal, a loud noise, and any number of other things. Regardless, that adrenaline response is still going to impact them the same. 

A character who is scared may:

  • Grab onto other characters or objects suddenly
  • Recoil, lean away, or retreat several steps
  • Cover their face with their hands
  • Wrap their arms around their torso
  • Hold their arms up as if to strike at something
  • Drift away from whatever is frightening them
  • Angle their body away, as if prepared to run at any moment
  • Tremble
  • Fidget
  • Cry
  • Scream
  • Freeze up
  • Flinch at the slightest noise, feeling, movement, etc
  • Chew on something, such as their own lips, nails, clothing, hair, etc
  • Shake or flap their hands around to “shake off” the adrenaline
  • Shrink themself away, drawing their limbs close to their body
  • Hide behind another character or object
  • Stare at something intensely
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Squirm
  • Sweat profusely
  • Hyperventilate
  • Go pale or flushed
  • Speak quickly and repeat words, or not speak at all
  • Speak in a hushed, shrill, or raspy voice
  • Mumble
  • Clench their jaw
  • Force a smile
  • Clutch their hands together tightly
  • Stumble or act clumsily

Another unfortunate consequence of adrenaline is nausea. This nausea will be worse the longer a character is frightened, and if they aren’t able to use their adrenaline, they will be left feeling shaky, sick to their stomach, and with a throbbing headache. It is not uncommon for someone to throw up as a result of being frightened. 

Sad Body Language

Unlike many of the other emotions described above, sadness results in a lack of energy. Everything your character attempts to do will consume much more of their energy, and they may simply give up on simple tasks such as showering or making dinner. 

Sadness is not the same as depression (depression isn’t an emotion, but a medical condition), but there is a lot of overlap between the two states—especially in regard to body language. 

A character who is sad may:

  • Move much slower than usual
  • Cry easily
  • Curl up in a ball when seated
  • Have bad posture
  • Act lethargic
  • Snap at others or show signs of anger or frustration
  • Drag their feet as they walk
  • Have a slow reaction time
  • Keep their head angled downward and look at the ground
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Zone out (stare off at nothing, with little to no awareness of what is going on around them)
  • Swallow more audibly and frequently
  • Cover their head, face, ears, or neck with their hands
  • Lay their head on a surface, like a table or wall
  • Hide their face in the crook of their elbow
  • Speak in a low, monotone voice
  • Wipe or rub at their eyes and face
  • Press their palms against their eyes
  • Let their hair hang in front of their face
  • Blink rapidly or look to the sky to keep tears from slipping out of their eyes
  • Breath slowly and deeply
  • Sob
  • Get dizzy

Sadness can make everything seem much harder to do, and if your character is truly sad, they may not have the energy to even try to do anything. They are also likely to be more apathetic about everything, and not see the point of putting in the energy to shower, eat, or get enough rest. Characters who are experiencing intense sadness, grief, or depression may also self-harm or turn to substances like alcohol to cope. 

If your characters are using alcohol to cope with sadness, then that is going to completely change the body language they display and the way you should write it. If you want help with that, you should check out How to Write a Drunk Character next. 

Disgusted Body Language

Disgust, like fear, is an emotion that is driven by instinct. Humans experience disgust to keep them away from things that could infect them or make them sick in some way. Anything that is considered offensive (or potentially harmful) to any of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound) can elicit a disgusted reaction—for example, the smell of rotten food or the sound of something gooey being squished.

However, disgust can also be triggered by another character’s political ideas, hobbies, behaviors, or preferences. That also means that disgust can be influenced by culture, since certain foods or behaviors might be considered normal in one culture, but gross and unacceptable in another. Disgust, when directed at another person’s traits or behaviors, is more often described as “contempt,” but that emotion also comes with an inherent sense of superiority.

When a character is disgusted, the most important thing to keep in mind is that they will be doing whatever they can to get away from the thing that is disgusting them. A character experiencing disgust may also:

  • Turn away
  • Recoil, or take several steps back
  • Sneer
  • Cover their mouth with their hand
  • Grimace
  • Squint their eyes
  • Feel nauseous 
  • Flinch or recoil at being touched, or at feeling certain objects
  • Get pale
  • Swallow hard and often
  • Gag or choke
  • Squirm
  • Whine
  • Shake their head side-to-side
  • Stick out their tongue
  • Avoid being touched
  • Close their eyes
  • Hold their arms up by their torso or chest
  • Cover their nose, ears, eyes, etc 
  • Move away from other characters and maintain a large radius of personal space

The context for the character’s disgusted reaction matters tremendously. A character reacting to a nasty smell is not going to behave in the same way as a character who is learning about their aunt’s strange weekend plans. 

The Body Language of Attraction

Every romance writer wants to know how to amp up the chemistry between their characters, and subtly weaving body language cues throughout the text is one of the best ways to do that. By having each character indicate that they are attracted to each other with their behaviors long before a real romance begins to bud, your readers will be more likely to accept the relationship between the two characters. 

When a character experiences attraction for another character, they will experience a sense of awe (that “oh my gosh, they’re beautiful” moment). This is commonly associated with a warm feeling in the chest, an increased heart rate, and dilated eyes. 

A character who is attracted to another character in the room is likely to:

  • Point their feet at the person they are interested in, instead of pointing them away or in separate directions
  • Tilt their head to the side
  • Maintain eye contact with the person they are interested in
  • Blink faster than normal (but not like a Disney Princess fluttering her eyelashes)
  • Blush
  • Face their whole body towards the person they are interested in, instead of pivoting or turning their head to look at them
  • Run their hand through their hair in a big, sweeping motion, or twirling with the ends of long hair
  • Mirror the body language of the person they are attracted to
  • Stand up straight and puff out their chest
  • Speak with a lighter, softer tone to their voice
  • Steal glances at the person they are attracted to (especially when the other person isn’t looking)
  • Look at the lips of the person they are attracted to
  • Lick their lips
  • Smile often
  • Push the boundaries of personal space
  • Straighten out their clothes, fix their hair, or otherwise attempt to keep their appearance in-check
  • Maintain an open posture, such as with their hands behind their back, their arms at their sides, or their hands on their hips

There’s a lot that goes into conveying good chemistry between characters. If you want some more specific instruction for writing about chemistry, attraction, and love, head over to Romance 101: How to Write Characters Falling in Love

Body Language and Personality in Character Creation

When you’re creating a new character, you should take the time to consider how they move, and the ways they cope with their emotions. In fact, the way a character moves is just as important as the ways they look or behave. Giving a character distinct body language can take a well-designed character and bring them to life in your readers’ imaginations. 

Body language is a powerful tool for creating distinct characters. Every person in the world has their own specific ways of reacting to different emotions and situations, and everyone has different behavioral quirks. By taking the time to consider a character’s personal body language and the ways they gesture and move, you are adding in another layer of individuality that makes them unique. 

When designing a character’s body language, it can be helpful to make a list of the most common emotions. (You can even take inspiration from the table of contents for this article!) Under each emotion, write out just a few distinct behaviors for the character to utilize in situations where they would feel that emotion. For example, maybe a character will always clear their throat when they get nervous, or they have a habit of tugging at their earlobe when they are happy. 

Those aren’t the only behaviors the character can use, but they should always be present whenever the character is feeling the emotion in question. This keeps them consistent and allows readers to pick up on how that character is feeling as they get more familiar with them.

Avoid Excessive Use of Characters’ Body Language

Although body language is important to include in your stories, you should be careful not to overdo it. Humans (and other humanoids, of course) move constantly, but that doesn’t mean you should draw attention to every micro-expression and subtle gesture they make. Only point out the behaviors that are relevant to the situation, or those that illustrate something about the character in question. If you overdo it, body language can really clutter up your scenes and add a lot of unnecessary length to your draft. Remember writers, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.”