For this third installment of using body language in your novel, we’re going to focus on the upper body and ways to infuse an ordinary story with deep layers of . . . well, upper body language description O_O — I knew this experiment to write a post while tipsy would make things difficult, but let’s just say it’s “interesting” and go with it. After all, I do write “after dark”so . . . yeah.
As we know, a person’s physical actions, whether performed consciously or unconsciously, reflect their mental state. And using these cues in our stories can help the reader dissect a character’s nonverbal communication, such as being nervous, angry, or even if they’re lying, among other things. I’ve covered facial expressions along with eyes and eyebrows, but now let’s move on . . . and remember, don't over do it!
Part Three: The Arms, Shoulders, and Posture
Arms are used a lot in self-expression. So it can be an easy way to indicate to your reader your character’s true comfort level. Make sure you use other cues as well as the context to build the right sense of emotion.
* Raised Arms. This can be used to indicate excitement. When people are happy, their arm motions defy gravity, and so should your character’s. So have her raise her arms high above her head to show she’s super duper excited.
* Swinging Arms. Use this to indicate your character is feeling good or confident. On the other hand, think of an insecure person and how they slouch with restrained arms. So use swinging arms—or lack of—to showcase your character’s confidence or insecurity.
* Crossed Arms. Use this to indicate anger, arrogance, frustration, insecurity, or that your character is feeling defensive, closed off, or even cold.
* Crossed Arms with Clenched Fists. This can indicate your character feels defensive or even hostile.
* Crossed Arms with Thumbs Up. This can be used to indicate your character feels superior to the other characters. (This is crossed arms, but with visually demanding thumbs pointing upward.)
* Crossed Arms with Crossed Legs. This can be used to indicate your character is feeling emotionally and physically closed off. In other words, he’s resistant to another character and is opposed to what that character might be suggesting.
* Concealed Crossed Arms gestures. This can be described as your character holding onto something in front of him with slightly crossed arms. Use this to indicate your character is feeling nervous or insecure but is trying to hide it. Public and famous people are good at this.
* Hand Texture. The physical description of hands can be used to indicate your character’s age (wrinkled or smooth), physical labor (calloused from hard work, burns from being a baker, scar from being in the army, etc.), or even privilege (having silky hands with an amazing manicure).
* Open Palms. This can be used to indicate honesty. When your character is telling the truth, his palms can be described as open.
* Closed Palm with Pointed Finger. This can be used to indicate dominance. And if it’s the middle finger, it’s a sign of aggression (as you very well know).
* Fidgeting and Twitching Fingers. This can be used to indicate your character is anxious, feeling inner conflict, or is bored. It can also be used to enhance your character’s personality, for example using specific quirks like biting nails when nervous, etc.
* Drumming Fingers. This can be used to indicate your character is feeling annoyed, impatient, or agitated.
* Clenched Fingers Behind Back. This can be used to indicate power, authority, and as a warning against misbehavior. Perfect for a character who is an authority figure.
* Cracking Knuckles. This can be used to indicate your character is ready for a fight, feeling violent, and angry.
* Upright Posture. Described as sitting or standing up straight with shoulders back. This can be used to indicate power, confidence, and control. Your character can command respect, show leadership, and promote engagement with an erect posture.
* Leaning Forward. This can be used to indicate your character is feeling hostile or aggressive.
* Leaning Back. This can be used to indicate your character is lazy, arrogant, tired, or lacking the courage to do something important.
* Sagging Posture. This can be used to indicate your character is feeling sick, insecure, in need of help, or sad.
* Shoulder Shrug. This can be used to indicate your character is confused, lacking confidence or knowledge, being obedient, or even to indicate an apology.
* Single Shoulder Shrug. This can be used to indicate your character’s lack of commitment, insecurity, and anxiety. Or it can be interpreted as a suspicious move, as in she’s possibly lying or holding back information.
* Raised Shoulders. This can be used to indicate your character is anxious, scared, insecure, tense, or is feeling small and insignificant. And if she’s combining raised shoulders with lowered head, it can mean she’s feeling threatened.
* Spread Out Shoulders. This can be used to indicate your character is relaxed and is feeling confident and assertive.
* Pushed Back Shoulders. This can be used to indicate your character is cocky and exerting dominance.
* Turned Shoulders. This can be used to indicate your character’s lack of interest, trying to escape, or feeling uncomfortable.
* Single Shoulder Raise with a Tilted Head. This can be used to indicate your character is flirting and is attracted to someone. It can also be combined with a slight turn of the head while she’s touching the side of her face.
And there it is! A couple extra details to use for your characters’ upper body gestures. Be sure to come back in the next few weeks for more body language tips for your novel.
See Part One—Facial Expressions here.
See Part Two—Eyes, Pupils, & Eyebrows here.
See Part Four—Legs, Feet, & Bonus Tips here.
By S. Katherine Anthony
S.K. Anthony (Shanny) is a writer, a reader, and make-stuff-up-er who lives in New York. She is an award-winning author and a bestseller on Amazon. When she isn’t busy with her toddler twins, S.K. finds herself being transported into the world of imagination. Well, either that or running away from spiders . . . she is convinced they are out to get her!