The Four Steps: Read, Watch, Listen, Body Language.

Are you aware that your dog communicates with body language? Most dogs cannot talk, aside from those dogs you occasionally see on youtube saying… “I wuv you.”

Well, I guess I can’t generalize about the entire animal kingdom… Our birds can talk. Cats can kinda talk.

We did have a cat who could speak English– Norman. He could say “Moror”, which is the bitter herb we eat at Passover, and “Myrywn”, a word similar to my husband ‘Oscar’s’ real name.

Oh yeah, his sister, Nolan, once said, “I dunno,” when asked, “Where’s your brother?”

Their mother could speak as well.  We all heard her. One night we were in bed, but the cat and her four kittens were down in the living room and the kittens were running around like they were on a nascar track. A strange woman yelled out, “Stop it!” And they did. There was dead silence. We all came out of our bedrooms and looked at each other. It was kind of stunning. The only creatures downstairs were Kitty and her kittens. We looked down at them. They looked up at us. But the kittens quit their running and went to bed.

All of which is to say… Sometimes what people don’t say means more than what they do say. Learning to understand body language is important if you want to understand people.

Dogs get it. Most animals get it because although animals can bark, growl, purr, snort, whatever, it’s their body that speaks for them. A good writer pays attention to body language in order to understand what someone is actually saying.

Does a person make eye contact? Or is a lack of eye contact cultural? Does a person lean toward me or away from me?

How much personal space do I need? How much does he need? Or she need?

What’s up with those hand gestures? How does an aggressive person appear and why/how does my body instinctively react to aggression? How does a person act when afraid? Sad? Weary? Confused? Happy?

Does that smile go all the way to the eyes? Or is the smile merely a politeness or, worse, a phony smile?

If you can learn to read a person’s body language, you will get more truth than you will from words alone.

Watch dogs. Dogs are masters at reading body language. My dog can tell if someone is fearful or aggressive or friendly from three hundred yards away, even farther.

Understanding body language will help you create fleshed-out, well-rounded characters. You don’t have to include, i.e., write down every nuance, every movement in your story; rather, it’s your understanding of body language that will make your characters real to your readers. Not cardboard or paper people (Guardians of the Galaxy), but real. Your insight will help you build real three dimensional people on that flat page.

Picture it as a pop-up book. That’s your goal. Characters who pop right off the page. We don’t want no ciphers. No. No. No.

I learned a valuable lesson from the Twilight series. Bear with me. I discovered the secret of Edward’s appeal to teens and young adults. He was one-dimensional, nothing more than a blank wall. The beauty of a blank wall is that each reader could throw against it whatever he or she wanted and it stuck. In other words, each reader could read into Edward what he or she wanted, make him over into her fantasy. Which is one of the reasons Twilight fanfic has been so popular. There’s no original there there. Sorry. Don’t mean to offend Twilight fans, but that’s my take on it.

The problem with a blank wall is that ultimately, it is unsatisfying– which, of course, is why we try to color it in. A real 3-D character is more like Jamie Fraser from Outlander. One might fantasize about Jamie, but one cannot improve upon Jamie. He IS. He has being.

Study up on your body language. It is the key to creating three dimensional characters.

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juliabarrett

I am an author of fiction and nonfiction.