so yeah, we all know that facial expressions can tell us a lot about how a character is feeling, but what if that isn’t an option? how can you make someone emote if they don’t really have standard facial features? the answer; body language.
let’s consider how emotions are conveyed on a stage production vs movie with Sweeney Todd. First, the stage play:
Note how Todd’s entire upper body goes into his gestures, how he’s single-mindedly focused on his dreams and ideals; how his hands GRAB for each imaginary ‘man’ with these sharp, aggressive, destructive movements and how that contrasts with Mrs. Lovett’s body language; how her hands linger in the air and gravitate towards Todd even after he’s pulled away, and the slow turn she gives him. It does an excellent, though exaggerated, way of conveying their relationship (her focus is on him and making him happy, his focus is entirely on revenge)
Contrast this to the movie:
Same lines in the song, much more subtle. Lovett’s eyes still track towards Todds, which reminds us she’s still more focused on the outside, but all of the emotion is in their faces. Were this not a close-up shot in a movie it’d be very, very hard to read their expressions.
While I do recommend you watch a few stage plays (in person near the back row if you can) to actually study body language for yourself or try out charades with your face covered with friends/watch how cosplayers or mascots emote, here’s a few shorthands to get you started (US-centric so expressions may vary on your region):
- perfectly still – fear, intense attention, feeling under scrutiny
- tilted up – recollection, intimidation (looking down nose at threat, aiming to appear taller)
- tilted down – intense thought, shame (avoiding eye contact), depression/sad feelings
- turned away – not giving person full attention, avoiding subject/conflict without being combative
- cocker-spaniel (sideways) tilt – confusion, curiosity, amusement
- at the forehead – fatigue (wiping away sweat), illness (checking self for fever, feeling a headache), realization/memory (a ‘well duh’ tap)
- at the eyes – fatigue or headache (shielding eyes from light), distress (blocking out a painful view, concealing tears)
- at the nose – disgust (a pinch at the nostrils,) irritation (rubbing at sore spot on nose from glasses wear)
- at the mouth – nausea, surprise, repressing an emotion/stopping self from saying something
- at the chin – contemplation, tiredness (face resting in hand)
- rubbing back of neck – a need to relax tension, embarrassment, slight unease/desire to distract self
- at the chest – surprise, self-protection (reaction to a wounding statement, sometimes used sarcastically), strong emotions (clutching at heart, could be good-strong or bad-strong), need for security (touching necklace/adjusting clothing to conceal more)
- at the stomach – pain (clutching, pressing), satisfaction after a meal, protectiveness towards fetus when applicable
- at the hip(s) – confidence, intimidation, nervousness (if grabbing for weapon)
- at groin – concealment/unease (usually male-coded as protection of genitals), politeness (hands folded in lap)
- on thighs – exhaustion (bent over, hands on legs supporting tired upper body)
- formed into fists – holding back an intense emotion, preparing to fight
- toying with something – restlessness (bored, nervous energy, craving something they can’t touch) or deliberate disrespect of property (playing with personal objects someone holds dear as an intimidation tactic)
- at sides, relaxed – default posture
- at sides, tense – unease, restraint (soldier at attention, person holding still to avoid being attacked), fear
- crossed at chest – disapproval, displaying authority, unease (hugging oneself)
- crossed at stomach – pain, intense laughter (caused by sore stomach muscles from laughing)
- up, fingers laced behind head – confidence, relaxation
- one arm on back of furniture – confidence, invitation for someone join them
- general rule – the further arms are away from body, the more confident/dominant a person means to appear; exposed torso indicates that they don’t see anyone around as a threat to them
- square with shoulders – professional, restraint, protective stance
- wide stance, one foot a little back but planted – defensive stance, expecting to receive blows (knees may be unlocked – seen in swordplay and fencing)
- weight on one leg – relaxed, tired, may also be leaning on something or pair with one ankle tucked behind the other
- uneven stance – could indicate old injury
- foot tapping/bouncing – boredom, nervous energy
- stiff and still – fear, unease, standing to attention
- limp or pliant – relaxed, tired, pleased
- shoulders back/head up – alert, focused, aggressive
- shoulders forward, hunched – tired, ashamed
- leaning towards person – interest, intimidation (looming over them), aggression (usually paired with tense arms or hands in fists,)
- leaning away from person – relaxation, confidence, disgust (recoiling)
- smooth/fluid movements – joy, confidence, experience
- stiff motions – fear (reactive, fight or flight), pain (reluctance to move), anger (either fighting to keep control of emotions or lashing out), cold (conservation of heat by keeping limbs near body)
- cracking joints/stretching – preparing for a fight, often reading as confidence in abilities
- general rule – close contact/proximity can read as intimidation (paired with tense body – an invasion of personal space) or affection (paired with relaxaed body language, gentle movement) or passion/attraction while distance can read unease/distaste/fear/dislike.
with those in mind, let’s read this scene from Red vs Blue (a personal fav of mine for body language) featuring agent texas from season 8.
So first of all, very relaxed upper body; limp arms held away from the body, which slowly come back to rest on her hips as she looks at what she’s done. Watch how her lean shifts at the end as her center of gravity shifts, and how she has to move her right leg to restabilize herself when she’s finished pushing it. This reads, in order from the start of the loop; detachment (the least amount of her body is involved in the action as possible), relaxation (smooth movements, the deliberation of those little steps backwards) and confidence (hands on hips.) We can tell a ton about this character just in this gif alone, based on her body language.
in summary! this list isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully it gives you some ideas for ways of making characters emote in fics when you can’t see their faces.