Creating Characters 3: We Ask The Questions!

In the third instalment of the Creating Characters series, we are going to explore how body language, posture, and mannerisms can be a key part of a character’s uniqueness and originality. By observing someone’s gestures, posture and body language, we can ‘hear’ a great deal. Through this silent visual language, they are telling you about their emotional state, attitudes, aspirations, desires, and character. Just from the way someone is sitting in a chair, you can tell a lot. If they are seated with crossed legs, which way does their raised foot point? People tend to point their foot in the direction they want to go in. If they are talking to someone and are seated with their foot pointing towards the door, it usually means they want to leave. If their foot is pointed towards someone, it means they are open and interested in them. If their arms are folded across their front, they are feeling closed and/or defensive. If a man sits with his knees spread apart, he is feeling confident, and wants to display it – unless this position is accompanied by a slouching posture and/or crossed arms. That more likely means he wants to look macho/confident, but feels defensive too. We are all aware of these visual signals, even if we do not look at someone and consciously think ‘her arms are crossed and she’s pointing her foot towards the door – she is uncomfortable and wants to leave’. Of course, some of us are better at picking up these nonverbal signals than others. But we all use and understand this language to some degree.

As a writer, you can tap into this. By looking more consciously at people’s mannerisms and body language, you can gain a better understanding of how we use and respond to body language. Then, you will be able to incorporate this knowledge into your writing. For example, instead of saying ‘he looked angry’, you could describe how he had clenched fists, and stood squarely before her with his feet planted apart and eyes glaring hard at her. This will help the reader picture the scene, and will farther define the character whose body language you are describing. And now we came to the exercise. Below is a video of a short segment from the hit BBC comedy, ’Allo ’Allo. The setting: a small French village during WW II. German amy officer Lieutenant Gruber is ordered, by his superior officers, to interrogate a French suspect who has been brought in.

When you have watched the video, think about how the delivery of the lines, and the accompanying body language, creates much of the comedy in this scene. Gruber is smiling, moving smoothly and elegantly (but becomes increasingly jittery!), tilting his head and body to one side, and speaking in a gentle, friendly tone – until he gets carried away reading from the ‘Manual of Interrogation’, and accidently shouts ‘ve ask ze questions!’.

By contrast, General von Klinkerhoffen is acting in the manner German soldiers are supposed to in this situation – shoulders back and square; chest thrust out; stern, stony, facial expression; direct eye contact; unsmiling; walks with confident military bearing; talks in a loud, abrupt, commanding voice. This is a wonderful scene to try writing out as though it were a scene in a novel. Make a real effort to describe the way the lines are delivered, and the way the characters look – their facial expressions, eye movements, body language, and tone of voice. And of course, for you to have succeeded, your scene will have to be funny too. Can you translate the comedy into words? Give it your best shot. Really picture the way the scene looks, and capture it in words.

In addition to a person's body language in a given moment or interaction, their habitual posture, mannerisms and gestures can tell us a great deal - and if they do not, you are not paying close enough attention! Here again, our kind friend the Lieutenant can help us. Guy Siner, the wonderful actor who plays Gruber, gave him a range of mannerisms and expressions, and a bearing, which fixed him in the hearts and minds of many 'Allo 'Allo viewers. If you are new to 'Allo 'Allo, have a look at some of the episodes on Youtube. Observe Lieutenant Gruber's gestures and posture. Which ones does he use? What do they express? Notice how he stands with an elegant non-slouchy posture, but has the habit of tilting to the side from the waist, or sometimes just tilting his head a little. Tilting the head and/or body to one side is often done by someone feeling apologetic and anxious to please, or, when done more slowly and deliberately, is flirtatious. When the tilt is accompanied by arms behind the back, it becomes shyer, and cutely childlike. But always with that combination, it expresses a positive feeling towards the other person. A little shy and uncertain, but pleased by the other person/s, and wanting to engage with them. The sideways tilt tends to be a woman's gesture - unless the head tilt is accompanied by crossed arms or hands on hips, and a direct, glaring eye contact. That means "you did, didn't you? I accuse you".

Shoulders square with hands behind the back is a soldier's posture, an on-parade posture. It is contained but confident, expressing bravery and discipline. Why bravery? Because hands held or crossed in front of the body provide a physical (and thereby emotional) barrier between us and whatever we are facing. No hands = "I fear nothing". Note how Gruber commonly holds his hands, or sometimes just one hand, behind his back. He is, after all, a soldier. But with that elegant tilt, it becomes something else. A posture of a certain confidence, but also of softness, delicacy, anxiousness to be kind, and of something slightly feminine and innocently childlike.

And what about the closed-lipped smile? What does that say about someone? It says "I am not telling you everything. I have a secret". This can encompass a whole range of things. It can be the smile of a polite person who is too kind and civil to say anything nasty or overly critical; it can be a liar who never gives a straight answer; a sensitive person who does not like to ‘let it all hang out’, because they are afraid of being harshly criticised; a person anxious to fit in, and therefore not revealing their true self – or, on the other hand, they might just not like their teeth!

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