Using Body Language in Your Novel, Part One—Facial Expressions

body language facial 2

How ’bout you and I get physical today? *Kat blows a kiss*

Don’t worry; I’m not trying to be inappropriate with you (any inappropriateness happens naturally, there’s no try here, it’s all “do”—ask Yoda). I’m only trying to share some of my notes on getting physical. Or rather helping you add some layers to your characters with the use of body language.

In art, there’s a term called underpainting–it’s the building of layer upon layer upon layer. And that’s what we want to do with our characters so the reader can experience a deep subconscious connection to them. We’re going to layer them up with some good old-fashioned physical actions.

So let’s get into it.

Reading another person’s body language is tricky. But most of our body parts are quietly communicating how we feel and what we want, whether we realize it or not. This is helpful in fiction. Although words can be deceptive, the human body is a terrible liar. It provides a surprising amount of information on what other people are thinking or how they’re feeling.

Here are some body language “tells” to further enhance your characters’ emotions:

Part One: Facial Expressions

Chin, Neck, and Jaw:

* Jutted chin. Described as extending your chin in front of you. Use it to indicate your character is being arrogant, inflexible, or stubborn. This can also be used to describe someone who feels superior to the other characters.

* Neck. The way you describe your character holding his neck can indicate anxiety or confidence. For example, if he’s looking at the floor or ceiling you know he’s nervous or unsure. But if he holds his head straight up, he’ll look calm and self-confident.

* Clenched jaw. A clenched jaw and tightened neck can be used to indicate stress, anxiety, or to portray that your character’s mind is elsewhere.

Forehead:

* Frowning. This can be used to indicate disapproval, lying, displeasure, or concentration in your character.

* Scowling and grimacing. Same as frowning—can be used to also indicate unhappiness, disagreement, or hurt.

Lips:

Mouths can say a lot of things without words. These are some things your character can say with just their lips.

* Pursed lips. Described as lips pulled inward from all directions. Use it to indicate: tension, frustration, distaste, disapproval, lying/withholding the truth, or anger. For example, you can use it to showcase a character holding her mouth shut to prevent herself from saying something she shouldn’t.

* Turned up lips. Described as having the corners of the mouth turned upward. Use it to indicate a smile of pleasure, which will engage the whole face. Or use it in a grimace of disgust, in which case the teeth are unlikely to be shown, making it flat and tense.

* Turned down lips. Described as having the corners of the mouth turned down. Use it to indicate sadness or displeasure.

* Parted lips. This can be used to indicate your character is flirting. Especially if the lips are then licked . . . and to kick it up a notch, add intensity by having the character hold the other person’s gaze.

* Puckered lips. Described as having the lips in a kiss shape. Use it to indicate desire primarily. But it can also show your character may be experiencing uncertainty—showcase this more by having her touch her puckered lips with her fingers.

* Tight or flattened lips. Described as squeezed flat lips or an exaggerated closed mouth. Use it to indicate disapproval, frustration, or a repressed desire to speak. Or even to show your character is trying not to cry.

* Retracted lips. Described as pulled back with exposed teeth. Use it to indicate either a broad smile or a snarl of aggression. Don’t forget to pair it with the eyes (see below)—crinkles for a smile and for the snarl, your character can have narrowed eyes.

* Twitching lips. Described as quick, small movements of the mouth. Twitching lips can indicate the betrayal of inner thoughts, cynicism, and disbelief.

* Biting the lips. Usually, this is the bottom lip. Use it to indicate flirtation (paired with eye contact), anxiety, stress, lying, or as a suppressing action (like your character stopping himself from saying something).

Smile and laughter:

Focus on describing what’s happening around the eyes.

* Fake Smile. If you want your character to have a fake smile, point out the lack of crinkles around the eyes. Conversely, with a . . .

* Genuine smile, if your character is smiling joyfully, their eyes will crinkle. So be sure to add crow’s feet on the outside of your character’s eye.

* Shy smile. Described as head turned slightly down or away while holding a closed-lip smile. This can be used to help your character look more innocent, secretive, youthful, or playful.

* Smug smile. You know that self-satisfied smile! This can be used to indicate arrogance, feelings of superiority, or as an attempt to dismiss what another character is saying. On the other hand, it can also be used to show flirtation as a sign of humor and playfulness.

* Slight smile. This can be used to indicate an attempt at seduction, especially if it’s accompanied by direct eye contact. Or on the other hand, it can indicate your character is unsure, or worried about another person’s perception of them.

* Smirk. Otherwise known as a twisted or lopsided smile. Described as a smile where the mouth moves in opposite directions, with one side of the lips moving upward as the other side slants down. It can be used to indicate mixed emotions, anxiety, sadness, sarcasm, irony, or embarrassment.

* Laughing. If one character is receptive to another character’s humor, she’s probably into him. Laughter serves as a way to indicate a desire for a relationship—platonic or romantic.

Bonus:

* Excessive or exaggerated nodding. This could indicate anxiety about approval. It’s a good action if you want to showcase your character being worried about what a specific person may think of them.

* Hair. This may not be an actual body language, but it’s helpful for appearance’s sake. The way your character carries her hair can be used as “tell signs.” Give her perfectly groomed hair to showcase her need to be in control. And THEN give her frazzled locks in a scene where you need to really highlight the level of tension and angst she’s going through.

* Touching face. If your character repeatedly touches his face, he’s probably nervous, anxious, or stressed.

The key is to add a mismatch between what your character is saying and what his (usually tense) body language is revealing. Use these “tells” sparingly, and you’ll be adding a great layer of emotional description! 😉

Be sure to come back in the next few weeks for more body language tips for your novel.

Coming up next: eyes, posture, arms, shoulders, legs, and feet.

9 comments

    1. I appreciate you saying that, Felicia!!! We do have several of those in the works, but want to make sure we offer truly helpful advice. I will be sure to reach out to you when we’re ready! I would love your input when it’s time! 😘

      Liked by 1 person

      1. YASSSSS! So glad to hear this, S.K.! If your books mirror your blog posts, trust me – they will be helpful!

        I save your blog posts as docs then import them into my Scrivener research folder. Would love to have a book-in-hand instead. Looking forward to the day! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes . . .

    You know I can’t help singing it. This is so thorough and helpful! I can’t wait for the next ones. And I agree with the above commenter. You could put this all together in book form and people would love it.

    Liked by 1 person

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