We’ve been all about the physical this week at 8LW. Michaeline posted yesterday about writers’ wellbeing, and Kat, Elizabeth and Justine have been discussing the key ingredients of a great sex scene: there’s a lot more to it than describing docking body parts. Conversely, depicting physical interaction is a challenge that extends way beyond the bedroom or back seat, and that’s my subject today: the majority of human communication is non-verbal, and capturing these exchanges well is a key aspect of building credible characters.
In class we talked about telling our stories through bodies in motion; a character’s actions are the reader’s most reliable guide to their true self. Actions are fun to read, too: one of my favorite scenes of all time is near the beginning of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, when the heroine employs reason and logic to no avail, and in extremis demonstrates her mettle by shooting the hero. Mary’s desperate action establishes her true character beyond doubt, and Vidal’s attitude towards her changes immediately as a result. It’s funny and moving and wonderful.
I thought I’d learned this lesson, but it seems not entirely. I think I’m OK at using action to drive the plot, but recently I received feedback pointing out that my characters’ responses aren’t always as convincing or powerful as they should be, because I fail to describe the physical manifestations of their emotions. I double-checked and damn, it was true.
Clearly this is something I have to do better, so I decided research was in order. I bought the Emotion Thesaurus as recommended by Justine, but I also bought a fantastic book called What Every Body Is Saying, by ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro and psychologist Dr Marvin Karlins. The tagline is An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People and that’s it in a nutshell. Since I started reading this book, I’ve been people-watching on the TV, on the bus, on the tube, everywhere, and it’s been a real eye-opener. For example, there’s a section on pacifying – discreet, socially acceptable gestures that we all adopt to calm ourselves in difficult situations or to soothe our insecurities. In women this might be covering the neck dimple with a hand or playing with a necklace; in a man it could be stroking the neck or chin. I watched a football coach do this repeatedly in a difficult press conference last week and thought ‘aha!’
The book explains that words and actions are governed by different parts of the human brain. Speech is the responsibility of the neocortex brain – the smart, logical thinking centre that’s also the sophisticated, lying part. Our bodies, however, are controlled by the limbic or mammalian brain. It responds to signals in the world around us instantaneously, reflexively, and without thought, so it’s a much truer guide to our feelings. It is possible to mislead with our bodies, but it’s hard. Every part of us sends signals – feet, legs, torso, hips, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers and face. There’s a clue in every gesture, the way we touch someone, our posture, even the distance we stand from another person.
Reading this book has opened up a world of possibilities for me and right now I’m just scratching the surface, but it’s already made a difference to the way my characters behave. A few days ago I wrote about super-bitch Sasha’s first visit to her late father’s company. It’s her twenty-fifth birthday, she’s just inherited control and she’s out to make her mark. I knew that the hapless receptionist would freeze in shock at Sasha’s take-no-prisoners attitude, just as I knew her smug, complacent CEO would start to pacify as he realizes he’s under serious threat.
How good are you at reading body language? Do you have a favorite scene that involves non-verbal ‘tells’?