Original Fic Tip: Add Non-Human Body Language to Your Setting
Today's tip is, again, from a much longer article about how to make your setting truly immersive. While the article is about fantasy settings, it's still good advice for pretty much any genre!
Non-Human Body Language:
Human communication is very complex, and a lot of it is nonverbal. Clever writers can say a lot about a character by describing their body language. But this method has limits, both because humans have a limited degree of motion and because human body language is so sensitive to context. Crossed arms could mean anger, defensiveness, or that it’s cold outside. On the other hand, non-human body language can be as specific as you need it to be.
Consider Katherine Addison’s novel The Goblin Emperor, where most of the characters are elves. At first glance, they are nearly indistinguishable from humans, but there’s one notable difference: their long, pointed ears. This physical feature is common among fantasy settings, but Addison takes it a step further. Her elves feature mobile ears, and their position indicates what an elf is feeling.
These mobile elf ears bring two major advantages to the story. First, they give Addison another avenue for communicating a character’s emotional state while staying within the story’s close viewpoint. The protagonist can tell another elf is angry because he sees their ears flatten against their head. Second, the ears prevent these elves from feeling like dressed-up humans. They add an extra dimension to elven social interaction and make the world feel much more real.
When employing this tactic in your story, it’s best to stick with body language that’s easy for your audience to remember. You’ll still need to explain what each signal means, but if the body language is intuitive, you won’t have to repeat yourselves. Addison’s elves have ear positions very similar to those of dogs, so the audience never needs a refresher course. If you have a fantasy creature that flashes colors to indicate emotion, red and yellow are easy to remember for anger, while blue is an easy way to represent calm.
In order for this tool to work properly, the body language must be something you can physically describe to the audience. Saying a character “moved their hands in the pattern that indicated anger” doesn’t help, it’s not much better than stating the character was angry. Instead, you’ll want something like…
Shayla jabbed their third and fourth arms in front of them with fists clenched so hard veins pulsed visibly beneath the skin. The Explorer gulped. Shayla was angry now.
Once you teach your audience to associate a specific action with a specific emotion, you can skip further explanation and simply describe the action.
Now go forth and write!