Does Your Protagonist’s Heart Always Race?

It’s easy to default to a few ways to describe a character’s body language, but over a 300-page novel, the same interpretations of emotions becomes repetitive. Have you leaned on one of these phrases?

“Her heart felt like it was going to pound out of her chest.”

“He blushed in embarrassment.”

“The butterflies in her stomach took flight.”

As a developmental editor, one of the most common notes I make in a manuscript goes something like this: Jane’s heart is “beating wildly” again. How else might Jane show that she is nervous?

*raises hand* I’ve fallen prey to these cliche phrases, too. They’re accessible, right on the edges of your mind and you don’t have to think too hard. Then you can get to the good stuff like dialogue and sweeping action. But part of good characterization comes from body language, so giving this short shrift is cutting off an effective way to let readers connect with your characters, especially for non-POV characters.

In fact, fifty-five percent of human communication is nonverbal.* So, we have a wide repertoire at our disposal. If you don’t include body language or reuse the same three details, you’re missing out on a rich avenue for characterization. (*Behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian breaks it down as 55 percent nonverbal, 38 percent voice inflection/tone, and 7 percent verbal.)

How can you break out of the repetition? Here are a few tips:

Start with your character’s emotions.

This may seem obvious, but ask yourself: What is my character feeling or thinking in this moment? It helps to get to the core of the emotions. Once you know exactly what your character is feeling, challenge yourself to think of something new. Is she embarrassed? If you’re tempted to describe her flushed cheeks, stop. Why is she embarrassed? Does it have to do with one other person? A group of people? What is the setting? What is available to her in the location or with these people that could affect how she reacts?

Don’t restate the emotion.

The purpose of including body language is to show the reader how your character is feeling, rather than telling them how your character is feeling. For example, it’s not necessary to state that your character gasped in surprise. Gasping already indicates surprise.

Use different types of body language.

I like to divide body language into three categories and then mix them up to include a full complement of nonverbal communication.

  • Facial expressions. The human face is an endless source of expressions. Test this out in real life. The next time you’re talking with a friend, take note of how their face could be a reflection of what they’re feeling.
  • Body postures. The way your character takes up space says a lot about them. Do they put hands on hips? Lean forward? Cross their arms over their chest? Tilt their head away from the group? Each of these relates something distinctive about the character.
  • Body movements. Consider how your character carries themselves and how it reflects the way they feel or the way they move through the world. For example, a character who is a gymnast moves differently from a character who is a rugby player.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my next page-one critique newsletter, which is the paid subscription version to of my free newsletter. If you want to review a deep dive into the first pages of published works and have the opportunity to submit your own first page, then subscribe here. I’ve reviewed the opening pages of books like  Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

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