An Author’s Power Tool

[Please Note: WordPress made a change recently to its editor. The Beta edition worked reasonably well. As you notice, it does not recognize paragraph separation. Their customer service has not responded. If and when they do, this post will be cleaned up and resent.] In a recent epiphany after reading thoughts on writing by other authors, I no longer view the people populating my stories as “characters.” For all intent and purpose, I create actors imbued with as close to real-life characteristics as possible. That means going beyond what they physically look like to include how they think, how they react in certain situations with the characteristics they are given, and how they speak. In a previous post, I suggested using astrology descriptions when “auditioning” for an actor. I don’t like putting theoretical stuff out there and not try it. Accuse me of being too scientific, but that is one of my degrees. I have a story in mind with a plot to reach a conclusion. The conveyors of the story from introduction of the problem to conclusion are actors. Unlike an arrow that goes fairly straight to the target (there is a slight curve), an author needs to include a few bumps, detours, and hardships to make the journey interesting. There are two things which can do this – physical impediments and actor characteristics. A story under construction uses six actors – a house (the POV narrator), an aunt and uncle, and three young people (two men and a woman). One of the young men is a Pisces (methodical, sensitive, respectful but submissive, timid, passive and hedonistic). The second young man is a Virgo (sensitive, cautious, action-oriented but a meticulous perfectionist, secretive with a cold, calculating approach). These are opposites on the great Astrological wheel. In this instance, they complement and help temper and strengthen each other. The young woman – no romantic triangle – is a Sagittarius (independent, restless, curious but brash, unpredictable, blunt, and aggressive). The aunt and uncle are patient guardians and teachers as the three mentioned actors are relatively young, being in their late teens and early twenties. That may seem a little old to have mentors/teachers, however, there is a need for them to become thoroughly educated. The house is an opinionated, designing, sometimes wisecracking observer/reporter. Now, that I have employed the actors it is necessary to address how they deliver their lines. Yes, they use words with descriptors of how those words are delivered. “He said,” “she said,” is appropriate when the reader understands the situation in which the lines are delivered; however, on occasion, “she said with sarcasm,” or “he screamed,” is not only appropriate but necessary. There are other ways actors speak which opens a world of communications. These involve body language. Body language is the gamut of nonverbal signals we humans use to communicate. These nonverbal signals actually make up a huge part of daily communication. From facial expressions to body movements, the things we don’t say can convey volumes of information. Body language accounts for 50 percent to 70 percent of all communication. This is an often overlooked tool a writer should consider, employing them as appropriate to the context of the intended message. The following are body language signs to consider using when writing.

Facial Expressions

A few examples of emotions the face can express include:
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Confusion
  • Excitement
  • Desire
  • Contempt
Facial expressions are also among the most universal forms of body language. How emotion is expressed is similar around the world. There are minor variations from one individual to another. Over the years I have collected pictures from the Internet regarding how emotions are portrayed. They only touch the tip of the iceberg. I have twenty-six different ways individuals smile, ten for surprise, fifteen for sad, fourteen for pain, and nine for crying. There are 265 pictures covering a myriad of emotions. Each is different because of how the individual’s face contorts.


There is a whole world apart from the shape and color of eyes. As “windows to the soul” eyes are capable of revealing a great deal about what a person is feeling or thinking. Some common things include whether people make direct eye contact or averting their gaze, how much they are blinking, or if their pupils are dilated. Do be aware that eye contact depends on the culture. Some things to be aware of are the gaze, blinking, and pupil size/dilation.


Mouth expressions and movements can also be essential in reading body language. For example:
  • Chewing on the bottom lip may indicate that the individual is experiencing feelings of worry, fear, or insecurity.
  • Pursed lips: Tightening the lips might be an indicator of distaste, disapproval, or distrust.
  • Lip biting: People sometimes bite their lips when they are worried, anxious, or stressed.
  • Covering the mouth: When people want to hide an emotional reaction or to avoid displaying smiles, smirks, a yawn, or a wide variety of emotions.
  • Smiling may be genuine, used to express false happiness, express sarcasm, or cynicism.
  • Turned up or down: Slight changes in the mouth can also be subtle indicators of what a person is feeling. When turned up could indicate a happy feeling or optimism. Slightly down-turned mouth could indicate sadness, disapproval.


Gestures are the most direct and obvious body language signals. Waving, pointing, and using fingers to indicate numerical amounts are all very common and easy to understand gestures. Again, be aware gestures are influenced by culture.
Some examples and possible meanings are:
  • A clenched fist to indicate anger or solidarity.
  • A thumbs up and thumbs down often indicate approval and disapproval.
  • The “okay” gesture, made by touching together the thumb and index finger in a circle while extending the other three fingers can be used to mean “okay” or “all right.” Here is an example where cultural changes the meaning. In some parts of Europe the same sign is used to imply you are nothing while in some South American countries, the symbol is actually a vulgar gesture.
  • The V-sign is created by lifting the index and middle finger and separating to mean peace or victory in some countries. In the UK and Australia, the symbol is an offensive meaning when the back of the hand is facing outward, something like a double, middle finger.

Arms and Legs

When considering using body language, here are some signals that the arms and legs may convey:
  • Crossed arms might indicate that a person feels defensive, self-protective, or closed-off.
  • Crossing legs away from another person may indicate dislike or discomfort with that individual.
  • Expanding the arms wide may be an attempt to seem larger or more commanding.
  • Arms close to the body may be an effort to minimize oneself, withdraw from attention, or indicate they are closed to the discussion.
  • Standing with hands placed on the hips can be an indication that a person is ready, or in control, or a sign of aggressiveness.
  • Clasping the hands behind the back might indicate that a person is feeling bored, anxious, angry, or submissive. (In oriental countries this is a widely-used posture.)
  • Rapidly tapping fingers or fidgeting can be a sign that a person is bored, impatient, or frustrated.
  • Crossed legs can indicate that a person is feeling closed off or in need of privacy. 


How the body is positioned conveys a wealth of information about how a person is feeling as well as hints about personality characteristics, such as whether a person is confident, open, or submissive.
  • Open posture involves keeping the trunk of the body open and exposed. This type of posture indicates friendliness, openness, and willingness.
  • Closed posture involves hiding the trunk of the body often by hunching forward and keeping the arms and legs crossed. This type of posture can be an indicator of hostility, unfriendliness, and anxiety.
  • Sitting up straight may indicate a person is focused and paying attention.
  • Sitting hunched forward can imply that the person is bored or indifferent.

Personal Space

The term proxemics, coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, refers to the distance between people as they interact. To better understand this concept I refer you to the Wikipedia article at Briefly, there are four social distances.
  • Intimate distance – usually occurs during intimate contact such as hugging, whispering, or touching.
  • Personal distance – family members or close friends.
  • Social distanceacquaintances, the distance depending on how comfortable you feel in the person’s presence.
  • Public distance – often used in public speaking situations.
Once again, the level of personal distance that individuals need to feel comfortable can vary from culture to culture.

In summary

This is really a bare-bones introduction to a powerful tool available to the serious writer and author. Incorporating body language into your story can go a long way toward helping better describe an exchange of information between your actors. Take some time to explore the topic on the Internet, both articles and pictures. In my writing techniques file, I have several pages of notes (cheat sheets, if you will) which I like to review from time to time before, during, and while editing a story. Again, I must stress to be aware of the culture your actor may represent. There are body language differences. Miss-use could be to your embarrassment or a great way to create conflict.

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