How to Use Character Body Language to Read Between the Lines

As I develop a character for a book, there are so many different components that I have to take into account. When writing about a character, I want to bring him to life by showing (“she was entranced with the clouds while she walked to school”) rather than telling (“she walked slowly”). I always want to create a backstory about the character, even if the audience never knows any of these extra tid-bits of information. They help me in understanding who the character is, what motivates him, how his past effects who he is, at the present.

When illustrating that same character, I want to use certain elements of him that come through visually: if he talks a lot, I want him to have a larger than-life mouth; if he is really inquisitive, I might want to focus on his eyes; if she is always running late, than make I want her body to have jerky lines instead of a smooth frame. Each of these details helps show your reader more about the character, developing a deeper, fuller, rounder person that they can connect with.

One of the best lessons I learned from one of my teachers at the Art Institute of Chicago, was  “You have to know the rules in order to break them.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that I never really cared for Picasso’s most famous work – it just left me hanging. But I remember the day when this same teacher introduced us to the other side of Picasso – his early work. I was blown away by his figure drawings. Picasso actually understood anatomy and proportion and knew where eyes went! I was captivated by their natural beauty, so pure, so raw. It brought me to a new level and depth of understanding, appreciation, and respect for Picasso’s later work.

When I start a new character study, I use live models or photographs to help guide me. I want to make my characters rooted in truth. Awkward angles of hands and elbows look so uncomfortable! Once I have my base down, then, I start to break them.
girl jumping ropeI make intentional choices about the parts of the body to accentuate or tone down. Every choice has a purpose.
mad theodoreEach of the characteristics I work on, from eyes, to nose, to ears, fingers and ankles, to knees, needs to convey a message, and brings out another layer and dimension to my character and their story.
happy boy jumping ropeAssignment
I want you to begin a new character, based off of someone you know (brother, kid, niece, etc). This way, you can sketch them live. Study their proportions, the way their limbs connect and move. How do their features align on their face? Once you have a strong character base, break the rules! Pick 3 features on them that you want to exaggerate or de-accentuate to tell a story about them (with no words!)
Share your character with us here – see if we can read between the lines! 

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