How to Write Body Language for Fiction Characters

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Okay.  Quiz time. You want to convey to your reader that your hero is angry.  What body language would you describe?

  • He crosses his legs.
  • He plants his fists on his hips.
  • He strokes his beard.
  • He chews his pen cap.
  • He leans forward in his chair.

You want to convey to your reader that your heroine is daydreaming.  What body language would you describe?

  • She snaps her umbrella closed.
  • She gazes out the window.
  • She bites her lip.
  • She furrows her brow.
  • She twirls a curl around her finger.

(Stay tuned for the thrilling answers to our Body Language Quiz!)

When I’m coaching aspiring authors, I often find myself weeding out the “almost ready to be published” from the “still has a learning curve” by a deceptively simple writing device:  body language.


Because consistent depictions of body language tend to be scarce in the work of beginning writers. 

Writers struggle so hard to create a memorable character through dialogue, viewpoint, goal, motivation, conflict (etc.), that they sometimes forget an important fact:

Fifty to 80 percent of all Human communications are non-verbal.

Body language is a potent snippet of “showing” when you’re striving to adhere to the age-old writing axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” 

Obviously, body language shouldn’t be used to repeat what your character just said.  To show and tell the same idea is redundant -- unless you have an extremely good reason as an author for emphasizing certain emotions or behaviors.

Example:  “Sure, Ted.  I’d love to go to the movie,” she said, nodding.

Either the previous passage needs editing for redundancy, or we have a simpering, overly eager-to-please female character.

My favorite use for writing body language is to contradict what a character is saying.  In this way, I show varying degrees of emotion beneath the "surface" of a character.  

Body language is a great tool for suggesting that a character is torn between two feelings. Or that a character isn't listening.  Or that a character is keeping a secret.  Or that a character is lying.

Let’s look at an example from a published novel. In the excerpt below, note how body language (especially facial expression) is used to contradict what each character is saying -- thus conveying to the reader that a) the hero is lying and b) the heroine knows it. 

Scoundrel for Hire (Excerpt)

Book 1 in the Velvet Lies Series of Western Historical Romances

by Adrienne deWolfe

Western Historical Romances by Adrienne deWolfeLeadville, CO (1881)

He could feel Silver’s appraising gaze again, poring over (his disguise) with the same attention to detail that a bookkeeper might use on accounts. Rafe couldn't help but lament the irony. Here he was, standing practically thigh to thigh with an unmarried heiress, and he was pretending to be a middle-aged greenhorn.

"So you claim to be Mr. Markham's nephew," she said slowly, an unmistakable lilt in her voice. "You must be from Philadelphia, then?"

"The Cradle of Liberty itself."

"How delightful," she drawled. "I'm from Philadelphia, too."

"Yes, well, I, er, was merely born there," he said, recovering as gracefully as he could. Damn her anyway. Was she really from Philadelphia?

Unable to take that chance, he hastened to add, "I spent most of my youth in..." Hesitating, he cast her a sideways glance. Where would a lawless sport be safe from female busy bodies? "...Abilene. And later, in Dodge City."

"Dodge City? Oh my." Her eyes danced, laughing up at him. "A geologist in a cowtown. I can just imagine what you must have dug up."

He glowered at her.

"So tell me Mr. Kansas geologist," she purred. "In what sort of rock formation might one find bituminous coal?"

Their eyes locked.  Rafe's heart sank. He didn't have the vaguest idea.

"I believe, sir," she said quietly, having the poor grace to smirk, "this is where you might say, 'The jig is up.'”

If you study the above excerpt from my #1 bestselling novel, Scoundrel for Hire, you’ll see that facial expressions (accompanied by judicious attributions) play a prominent role in “showing” the reader that Silver knows Rafe is an imposter long before she plays her trump card. 

My final advice about writing body language?

Body language should be used in moderation, because it can slow the pace of a scene. 

If your intention is to write characters in a heated debate, or characters who are dealing with an emergency, edit out most of the body language (including facial expression) to keep the dialogue snappy.

If you'd like private pointers on character or plot development while writing novels, check out my story critiques for commercial fiction. (Romance writers: click here.)

Now, let’s review the answers to our Body Language Quiz:

Writing a Novel: 7 Stages of Fiction FrenzyYou want to convey to your reader that your hero is angry. What body language would you use?

  • He crosses his legs. (Nope.  Conveys reticence. Aloofness. Insecurity.)
  • He plants his fists on his hips. (Yes! Irritation, anger, impatience are implied here.)
  • He strokes his beard. (Nope. Cogitation going on.)
  • He chews his pen cap. (More cogitation.)
  • He leans forward in his chair. (Possibly.  He could also be eager.  However, leaning forward is considered a subliminally aggressive move.)

You want to convey to your reader that your heroine is daydreaming. What body language do you use?

  • She snaps her umbrella closed. (Nope.  Impatience or anger is conveyed by the powerful verb, “snapped.”)
  • She gazes out the window.  (A good choice.  Adding a sigh or a dreamy smile to this description would make it a shoe-in for best answer.)
  • She bites her lip. (Naw. She’s nervous or anxious here.)
  • She furrows her brow.  (Confusion.  Suspicion.  Doubt.)
  • She twirls a curl around her finger. (Possibly.  She could be daydreaming here.  Or she could be nervous.  The context of the dialogue would let us know for sure.)