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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's All About the Body Language

I love a job where I can spend the morning watching YouTube. Watching National Geographic, since you ask. It's not my normal fare, but it is research.

Deep in the mires of editing I ran into a problem: body language. One of my characters is a shape shifter (a lion) and incapable of human speech for the first third of the book. Body language is how he communicates.

To complicate matters the other character on scene doesn't know anything about my nonverbal character's species. She doesn't know if she's looking at a lion or a tiger. Everything has to be described so the reader can understand, and so the two characters can communicate. And I don't own a cat!

Early beta reviews of the draft came back with the complaint that my lion was too dog-like. Go figure, I have two dogs in residence and I'm very familiar with their body language. I can tell when my dog thinks she is in trouble, or when the puppy is tired in the same way I can tell from a human's expression if they are distressed, happy, or lying. Body language is a beautiful thing

Humans are a visual species. We rely on our vision for hunting food, pursuing mates, and communication.

Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist at UCLA, suggested the 7%-38%-55% Rule. The theory is words account for 7% of communication between two individuals, tone of voice counts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55%.

As a writer you could cheat and write, "She looked happy." But, let's face it, your beta-readers will chase you with torches, pitchforks, and zombie hordes because that's a cop out. What makes a person look happy? Eyes wide open, pupils wide, mouth turned up in a smile, "open" body language. You can go to any store, mall, or street fair and people watch for hours.

Lions are a little bit harder. So I'm doing research on YouTube, taking notes, and tonight I'll tackle chapter ten. I'm including one of the video clips I'm using for research. The lion shape-shifter in Twisted Metal is about the same, physically, as the young male in the video.

Want to learn more about human body language? Here's an article about being aware of your body language. And here's the link to the Emotion Thesaurus on Bookshelf Muse where human emotions have already been described for you. Pick your five favorite suggestions and get back to writing!


  1. Very helpful, going through my edits now and hadn't even thought about body language. Thanks :)

  2. I really struggled with this when I had a MC who was mute, but your shapeshifter would be even more difficult! Good luck with it! And thanks for the shout out :)

  3. I once wrote a story once with a mute MC. It ended up being one of my favorites -- though sadly a fan fic so I can't do anything with it. I had to rely on body language to convey everything. A major challenge, for sure! Working with a non human would be even harder, but I'm sure you're up for the challenge. :)

  4. Great post, I'd never heard about the 7/38/55% rule before. It's one to keep in mind, most definitely. Thanks for this tip!

  5. Charmaine - Body language is a huge part of language. And I hate saying, "She looked..." every other sentence. :oP

    Angela- Shapeshifters are fun! Thankfully, this one is very expressive. I have a shapeshifter who doesn't talk and doesn't show emotion in another book and he drives me and the other characters nuts!

    Jean - I'm enjoying this character, his background "commentary" on everything from characters to food entertains me. He makes faces at people behind their backs. :o)

    Terresa- I admit, I cheated on the rule. I found it while I was researching yesterday. Before that, I wasn't aware of it. But I think it's going to help a lot.