Body language – an author’s occupational hazard

My best friend and I were sitting at lunch the other day, and a hot guy walked by. So I said, “That guy is hot.” (I’m eloquent that way.)

“Would you say that in front of your husband?” she asked.

“Sure would, and he doesn’t mind.”

She expressed some disbelief on his behalf, but it’s the truth. It has to be. It’s my job to notice people.

All authors have to be masters at description, and human beings are mainly what we describe. A story is mostly about what our characters think and how they act. But their appearance (either the one they’re born with or the one they create) can have a powerful impact on their thoughts, their actions, how other characters react to them, and–ultimately–how our readers respond.

Authors must be good manipulators of “body language.”

I know a dozen ways to say “blond.” If I call a girl “overweight”, the reader will form a different mental image than if I call her “curvy.” I might give a minor character light brown eyes, but the hero’s eyes are a sexy amber.

We have to pay attention to details. So many details.

  • What is the shape of a person’s face? Are her features symmetric? Does he have scars or facial hair? What about skin tone?
  • How is their hair cut? Does the style flatter or detract? Is the color natural or not?
  • What about a character’s hands? Does she have long, elegant fingers? Is his skin supple, rough, or wrinkled?
  • Are their nails long? Manicured? Dirty? Bitten?


So many faces with diversity

As I explained to my friend, if I say that a guy is attractive, I could also write a five-hundred word description to tell her exactly why. And it’s likely that elements of that description will wind up in a book of mine one day.

Authors have careers that require understanding from our partners, but we’re not the only ones. Health care providers see and touch bare body parts in their normal, daily routine. Actors kiss people who aren’t their partners. The lady at the lingerie store knows precisely what bra size I wear just by looking.

My husband understands. He knows that a lot of what I say is simply exercising the tools of my trade.

Really. If I say you’re hot, it’s professional, not personal. Well, most of the time.


Fade to Us cover

Has a frank, objective description of someone’s appearance ever gotten you a raised eyebrow? Or are you careful to keep your adjectives to yourself? Join us in the comments and let’s talk about where we have to draw the line on musing out loud about details that might end up in our books.


Elizabeth Langston is a YA romance author. Writing as Julia Day, her next book releases on February 6. Set in a summer musical theater camp, FADE TO US tells the story of a teen, her autistic stepsister, and the boy they both like–in different ways.  Elizabeth/Julia has two 20-something daughters who are enthusiastic about describing guys for her.  


16 responses to “Body language – an author’s occupational hazard”

  1. Great blog topic, Beth, and you gave me an idea for a writing exercise to share with my writer’s group this weekend.

    Insights to people can be shown through body description and body language. For example, I know a man who tilts his head ever so slightly when you’re speaking to him. He appears very interested in what you’re saying, and trusting wearing a slight smile, but he’s a hard-core business man and what he is actually doing is sizing up the person he’s listening to.

    I’ve been around him long enough to know that the first question he asks of new acquaintance will tell if he’ll continue a relationship with them. If the question relates to business or sports, you’re in. If the question is of a personal nature (Ie; “How’s your spouse like volunteering?”) you’re out not on his list of contacts.

    That tilt of head and the reason behind it says so much about him.

    Congrats on the upcoming release. It sounds amazing.

    Again great blog. I can’t wait to see what others have to share.

    • My daughter is autistic. It’s hard for her to listen to someone and watch their face at the same time. She can process audio, or visual, but not both.

      If she is looking at you while you’re talking, she is not paying attention. If she is staring off into the sky or at the ceiling fan, she is concentrating on what you’re saying.

      It’s another example of what you mention about the man. You not only have to see the body language, but you have to understand the motivation behind it.

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Wow! What an insightful reading of that businessman!

  2. Body language is so key – and I have a nasty tendency to fall into the same patterns when I’m writing it. Nodding and shrugging and UGH. Time to get out my toolbox and see what else I can come up with. 🙂

    • When I’m doing final edits, I have a list of body language verbs that I check for–like nod and shrug. Also smile, look away, raise eyebrow. Yeah, my characters do a lot of that.

      I went to a workshop on Body Language last fall by Virginia Kantra. She said to think about Emojis when writing emotion. Most emoji faces have mouth, eyes, and brows. She suggested remembering that when we write about emotion.

    • I’m in the editing mood now and I have the same references. LOL My delete is going to get a work out.

  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    LOL, Beth! Writers do get themselves in a lot of trouble with their people-watching.

    I tend not to verbalize while people watching, so I get away with more…but I do occasionally get caught staring.

    Just this morning during my commute, I was at a traffic light on a residential corner, just by the elementary school. A businessman dad was saying goodbye to his very young son–maybe a first or second grader–and (since it was a loooong red light) I watched them for quite a while.

    The dad got down on one knee so he could be face to face with his son while they talked intently about something. The little boy had his hand on one of his dad’s shoulders, and the dad had his hand on the little boy’s waist. They didn’t break eye contact the whole time they were talking.

    Something in the little boy’s posture communicated confidence and happiness–it was clear he gets lots of focus from his dad, and feels loved.

    When they said goodbye, the little boy gave him dad a big hug once, then a second time, and the dad wrapped the boy up in his arms and squeezed him tight for several seconds.

    It was just so lovely to see how completely focused they were on each other, and how unabashed their affection was for each other.

    Then the son turned and ran off towards school in that happy, all-limbs-flying way elementary school kids have when they feel secure in their world.

    I don’t think they noticed me staring, but I did feel self-conscious about how shamelessly I watched.

  4. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    Details, details….weaving words in such a way that the description/details give a visual to the minds eye.

    For myself, I’ve noticed that in writing has the ability to “describe out loud” better.

    Thank for the post,Elizabeth!

    • I love how details can make such a big difference–and communicate so much character even with a tiny thing.

      I write YA–and I like to show characters with shoes. I wrote a female character once who had sequined Keds. She was a very different person for the girl who wore combat boots with no shoestrings.

      I’m not sure if that’s lazy writing or efficient 🙂 But it works for me.

  5. Darynda Jones says:

    What a great post, Beth!

    I do the same thing with my husband. I comment on people of all shapes and sizes, telling him that I admire this or that. He once asked me, quite seriously, if I was into women. “You are always commenting on them, saying how pretty this one is or how that one has gorgeous hands.” He wouldn’t have cared, mind you, if I were, but I had to let him down gently and explain this very thing to him, reminding him that I do the same with men. It’s the writer’s eye. We observe. We analyze.

    At the same time, like others, I will fall into the same patters to describe action. That’s one reason I really like the Emotion Thesauri. Those things are great!

  6. Panthera says:

    After writing about animals for so long, I attempted to write about people. It was a switch I found to be very difficult. It wasn’t until I began traveling around the country as a musician, I found the courage to truly observe people.
    It was shortly after 9/11 so what I saw was a mixture of emotions. The time was full of fear, sadness, anxiety, and uncertainty. Yet at the same time I found it to be full of love, hope, happiness and unity as well. My music took me places where I probably wouldn’t have dreamed of going without it and it allowed me to talk to people who wouldn’t have given me the time of day any other time.
    Now, my health leaves me mostly home bound. So I use my memories to write what I remember from those times.Where I live now, the people I see now are nothing like the ones I met then. Yet maybe one day, I might use one or two characters in a story. lol

  7. Addison Fox says:

    Beth – you are SO right on the observation. I am amazed how often I catch myself because I am staring at a person or a group of people playing out their own personal scene. I don’t want to make someone else uncomfortable, but I’m just so curious!!!

    What’s happening? What led to this? Why do they feel that way?

    The writer’s mind is a crazy place. It’s so nice to be with people who understand exactly why!! 🙂



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