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Give Your Characters Body Language Tells
by Thomas Kappel
01/08/07
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Give Your Characters Body Language “Tells.”

Have you ever wished that you or the lead character in your stories could read minds or know what those around them are thinking? Are they being truthful or not? Are they trying to deceive someone? Are they allies or not--friend or foe? Well, your astute detective, newspaper reporter, female heroine, or main character can utilize their observation skills to move the story and plot forward by knowing and utilizing character “tells.”

Good writers do this now, but it can be done better once you know and understand the process.

Scientists, a few years ago, researched and found that people communicate 7% of their meaning through the spoken word, 38% through the tone of voice, and 55% through their physiology or body language. I’m sure many writers have some acquaintance with this research, but it has taken the game of poker to refine the many aspects of body language and turn them into character “tells”.

As in high stakes poker with lots of money on the table, the potential for the success and sale of your novel or story can be greatly improved with the careful use of character tells, but they must be unique to a character and used sparingly.

"Tells" are facial, vocal expressions, or body language that is specific to an individual. They are the body reactions unique to each person that-tells-you a lot about them. For the most part, these involuntary body responses usually fall into four main groups; emotion, attitude, posture, and expression.

Emotion signals in dialogue can be verbal change in tone, word choice, volume, and delivery. Unconscious changes to the body like a tightening of the throat or a change in breathing may make voices tremble, hesitate, harden or soften, and become shrill or edgy. Remember that 38% of communication is through tone of voice. Physical signs of emotion are many and include; sweating, rapid pulse, blushing, blinking, clenching of teeth, and, of course, fainting.

Attitude tells can be sudden changes in dress, appearance, or mental stance and can be shown by the body as resignation, surrender, condescending, stoical, reserved, or depressed.

Posture signals can be changes in walk or stance such as; jaunty, cocky, ambling, plodding, stooped, lifeless, or absurd. Weight shifts, movement of feet, placement of hands, head position, tightened muscles, and white knuckle clenched fists are a few posture signals. Do they slouch or straighten or make themselves appear larger or turn sideways as a larger or smaller target? Do they take a step back or move aggressively forward? Do they lean forward or lean back? Posture signals can be subtle but important, just ask a poker player about posture signals.

Expression is perhaps the largest area for introducing tells in characters. Eye movements, facial expressions, and gestures are a few of the many areas where unique conscious and unconscious changes can be observed and used. Eye movements can be very telling with avoiding eye contact, staring off in the distance, dropping down or away. If they move their eyes to one side, their creative side, they may be about to make up a story or tell a lie. If they move their glance in the other direction, they may be honestly trying to recall or tell the truth. A person’s expression also may instantly become dazed, dreamy, calm, bland, frozen, wistful, belligerent, bitter, or wry by a word, a question, or a change in their perceived situation.

Characters are people. Understanding and knowing the people that populate your writing is critical for the success of your writing. Understanding character “tells” using them properly in novels and stories can go a long way in making sales and becoming a more successful writer and author.


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