Monday, June 25, 2007


There’s this sixteen-month-old baby, Ezra Brown (nickname Easy B), whose facial features are a wealth of expression. High, wide forehead, expressive eyes, mouth that becomes the Grand Canyon upon a smile, every muscle in his face and form are methods of communication. He speaks -- well, actually he jabbers -- in some Klingon dialect no human can understand.

So what I thought was this: Why can’t we adult humans communicate so well. Easy B communicates with his mother through sign language, “please,” the rounding circle on his tummy and “all done” the waving of two tiny hands above his head. However, when he wants to nurse, his little face becomes very still; he uses only one hand to simulate the milking of a cow, a closed fist (okay, DO NOT ask), and holds the posture until his mother acknowledges what he wants. Then, when she bares her breast, he gives this little ah-ha of relief at being understood and given his most elemental need.

Communication. Men and women have been doing this awkward dance for centuries. And it’s darned strange that I can read every nuance of Ezra’s face and body as if his words were emblazoned on a marquee, but have difficulty conveying the same language among my characters.

When I want to cow a particular unruly tenth-grader in my high school class, a lifting of both brows and a stoic stare are sufficient to quell the ensuing rebellion.

Why is it so much harder to use body and facial language for our characters without reverting to stereotype and caricature? I mean, come on, there are only so many brow lifts, steely stares, and mouth quirks the story can handle. And in real life, our dashing Alpha males express very little with their faces, more, perhaps with their bodies, and oh yeah, a whole lot with . . . well, ‘nuff said there.

So my question to both readers and writers is: What’s your favorite character’s (male or female) non-verbal expression or use of body communication? NON-VERBAL, ladies and gents, to eliminate the classic, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” followed by an equally classic thunderbolt from the gods.

Or what's a favorite communication tool you use as a writer?


Christine Wells said...

In real life my best friend has the best eybrow quirk you've ever seen, and she uses it to great effect!

As a writer it's so hard to be original if you force the body language to take the place of dialogue tags all the time, but if you ground them in the scene, then you can make them more unique. I learned this tip from Elizabeth George--in each scene she has the characters engaged in some particular activity, to avoid the 'talking heads' syndrome. So someone is gardening or sculpting or something like that while they're talking and then you can make the gestures really specific to what they are doing. When you think of how often her scenes would otherwise consist of question and answer interrogations, she really needs to do this, but I think it's a useful thing to remember for all writers. I often think, though, that if the police came to interrogate me about a murder I would probably stop potting my violets long enough to give them my full attention!LOL

Keira Soleore said...

Well, Regency-set historicals have been accused to having heroes with extremely mobile eyebrows (usually one). The heroines on the other hand, express the same sentiment by raising their chins. Sigh! I wish there were other ways to express those emotions.

Sorry to hijack your blog, Jo, but I wanted to ask which Banditas are doing to National? I was making a list of who I should meet, etc. etc. Thanks.

Caren Crane said...

Ah, Jo, the eternal question. I'm afraid my characters suffer the "mobile eyebrows" Keira mentioned quite a bit. Though I often use the tactic Christine mentioned. Gardening is always a good one - particularly if one can work in a spirited *snip* with the shears. *g*

I adore the single raised eyebrow because it's so easy to picture. I have read some passages describing facial expressions I simply couldn't picture. Frustrating! Less is more sometimes. A simple lowering of the eyelashes or thinning of the lips.

I think, too, that the method Christine uses helps you use the whole body rather than the face alone.

Keira, many of us will be at the RWA conference. I know I will! Also Jeanne, Beth, Trish, Anna C., Anna S., Joan, Suzanne, and I'm sure loads of others I have forgotten. Chime in, y'all!

Trish Milburn said...

This is one of those things, like trying to find a new way to describe a kiss, that we writers have to really dig hard to find new descriptions for (and yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition). :)

As Caren said, I'll be at National -- for a long time. I get in the Saturday before the conference starts for the board meeting.

DMacMeans said...


My heroines tend to be embarrassed a lot. That or on the verge of tears. To avoid constantly saying "a blush warmed her cheeks," I try to be a bit more creative. "Her cheeks alone could melt the wax at Madame Troussauds" or some such thing. Yeah - my poor heroines are rarely in a comfort zone (hehehe).

Kiera - I'll be in Dallas. Come by and say HI!

Donna MacMeans

Anna Sugden said...

LOL - I have characters with mobile eyebrows too. I have two favourite NV's for my hockey player, the half-smile and the working muscle in the jaw. Although the man has a grin that is simply yum!

And I know what you mean Jo about quelling the children in your class - I was well known for my 'look'!

Keira - as Caren said, I'll be there. I'll be one of the few Brits who isn't an editor *grin* and you can tell me from Anna C as she has the Aussie accent.

jo lewis-robertson said...

I, too love the single eyebrow thing, Caren. It speaks volumes to me and I never get tired of seeing the expression in print. The ONE brow is sexy and mysterious to me. Both brows? That's I'm-coming-to-get-you! My daughter read the blog and said the comment flipped her back to her childhood and she was very, very afraid LOL.

Keira, I'll be at national too!

Aunty Cindy said...

Great post, Jo!
With seven kids I'm SURE you perfected the "death ray glare" long before you ever hit the classroom! HA!

As for characters and NV communication, I don't write historical but I've definitely done the raised eyebrows, clenched jaw, lips pressed in a thin line... all the old stand-bys. And as your ever-lovin CP, Jo-Mama, you know I'm famous for writing "STAGE DIRECTIONS" in the margins of conversations. ;-) Which reminds me of a certain scene I recently wrote about a "prison tough" who kept fidgeting with his hands during a tense conversation. You said it conveyed his "real" emotions quite effectively. Here's hoping some editor agrees!

P.S. Unfortunately, Christine, Christie, Kirsten and I will be (wo)manning the Bandit hide-out while the rest are off plundering and pillaging Dallas.

Tawny said...

I'm jealous of anyone who can do a single brow raise. My 9 mo neice can even do it *sob* me, I'm stuck with the deadly glare.

Keira - I'll be at Nationals this year! Can't wait!!

Suzanne Welsh said...

I'm not a teacher, but I perfected the "deadly stare" at my sister as we were growing up. And I could do a one-brow lift that would make Mr. Spock down right green with envy!

My favorite move to show frustration in a character is the hero shoving his hands through his hair or rubbing the back of his neck. But I really like to have the heroine note his quirk and chalk it up on her list of things she loves/hates about him.

I'll be in Dallas, oh wait, I'm already here! Hopefully it will stop raining by the time Nationals gets here.


Joan said...

Alas, I cannot do a one brow lift...but BOY I wish I could! Then again maybe not after the day at work I had! (My eye! My eye! The brow is stuck!).

Instead I had to rely on my "eyes that flash fire"....lost two nurses that way today :-)

kim h said...

wink both eyes

Robb L. said...

I have been thinking about this recently as I have been re-reading Ayn Rand ("Atlas Shrugged", "We The Living"). A technique I find particularly effective in articulating her characters' emotions and words (spoken and unspoken) is Rand's use of the language of architecture. As an amateur architect and professional engineer myself, the metaphors of buildings strike me particularly well. Just take the first page of "The Fountainhead" (I have included the first lines to remind us of the circumstances as the story begins):
"Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff...His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind...His face was like a law of nature - a thing one could not question, alter or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint."
Perhaps this is not, in the sense Jo meant, "body language". But for Rand's Roark, his physique, his facial features, his physical congruity with the granite quarry surrounding him, and indeed his effect on all of the people, places and intimacies in which Rand places him serve as a most powerful form of body language - an unaffected and deeply innate language of his body, and perhaps most significant, a simultaneous declaration of not only what he is thinking at any moment, but a summation of his entire character.
-Robb L. Robertson

shannon said...

okay... I am sorry Mom. I have to comment on Christine's comment first because I laughed out loud at the end of it. I always feft that way about Law and Order (not the concept... the TV show... I take the concept quite seriously... how do you convey sarcasm in a blog comment?) Anyway...on Law and Order, EVERY TIME the cops are asking a possible witness (or whatever) questions about a murder, they casually go about their business, barely looking the cops in the eye... be it hauling bags of sod or passing out drinks in a nudie bar. They act as if having 2 detectives ask them questions about the decapitation of an albino transvestite (yeah... TV is really going down the tube... pun intended) is commonplace and certainly no cause for alarm. Well maybe for the waitress in the nudie bar it IS commonplace...Nonetheless, it makes me crazy!! (You can't see me, but I am affected some non-verbal communication of my own here with an exaggerated and very dramatic eye-roll... my 8 year old has perfected it). LOL

shannon said...

Cindy, you are right ON about Mom (Jo) perfecting the stare of death! In my house we call it the stink eye and my 17 month old has it DOWN. Actually, growing up, the best non-verbal indicator that we were REALLY in big trouble was the slight jut of her lower jaw while she bit her tongue. I shiver just thinking of it. It usually was followed by a "swwwaaack" and then of course your typical horrifying scream. LOL :) Just kidding Mom. Hee hee.

Christine Wells said...

LOL, Shannon. Love the stink eye expression! I think I need lessons from your ma.

Yes, I will be hunkering down in the bandita cave with Aunty C and our other stay-at-homes, sadly. Would have loved to meet you, Keira. Maybe next year in San Fran?

jo lewis-robertson said...

Great example from Ayn Rand, Robb. I especially like the "his face was a law of nature, a thing one could not question, alter, or implore." Gives me chills. Love the metaphor/simile and the extended metaphor. Me, I woulda said he was so stubborn LOL.

BTW, someone just told me that her first name is pronounced EEN, long E. I've always pronounced it rhyming with "pan." Do any of our friends across the ocean know what's correct?

Caren Crane said...

Actually, Jo, I have always heard Rand's name prounced "Ain" (rhymes with "pain", which some of her writing induced in me).

Robb, it's interesting you bring up "The Fountainhead". I was discussing it with a writer friend recently as an example of a compelling book with completely unlikeable characters. The hero and heroine are the worst sort of intellectual snobs who love no one - not even themselves. I caompletely agree Rand did a fabulous job of using the cold, angular architectural setting in this book. It makes me cold to think of it!

I first read Rand as a teenager and have thought, ever since, she must have been a terribly unhappy person. A genius, certainly, but there is such profound anguish in all her work. Wonderful observation you made. Thank you for stopping by!

Caren Crane said...

Okay, got the poop on "Ayn". It's a Finnish name that in Russian is pronounced "Ina" (long I). In English, it would be written "Aino". Rand shortened it to Ayn. It wasn't her name, she made it up. Last name, too (hey, writer's privilege). *g* Her real name would have been translated as something like "Alyssa".

Caren Crane said...

Oh, and I forgot to say it's pronounced like "mine". Odd duck, that one!

Aunty Cindy said...

The THINGS you learn hanging around the Bandit Lair!

Stink Eye
Finnish-Russian pronunciation
And yes, Kim H. I "got" the reference to Jamie Fraser (one of my all-time favorite romance heroes).