Many tools are available to writers to make characters real and three-dimensional. The most obvious are physical description and dialogue. Everyone in the world looks unique in some way, or at least unlike all the others we meet in a lifetime (there are of course identical twins, and rare cases of body-doubles that dictators are said to use to avoid assassination). And there are highly personal ways of speaking: we see them described in Dickens in amusing ways that are perhaps more memorable than any other writer whose work I know.
But there is another way of making characters real that is less practiced but in a way more telling: body language. In our daily interactions with others, we are constantly reading body language. There is the strut that speaks of pride or purpose; the lowered head that may say something about modesty or shyness; the spread of arms that reflects energy or ambition. We observe and respond to these movements almost without conscious thought. We have seen them thousands of times, and they always seem to mean more or less the same thing.
Actors practice body language in amazing ways. I recently saw Sir Ian McKellen (with Sir Patrick Stewart and Billy Crudup) in a Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. All three were wonderful, but McKellen was amazing. His arms, legs, fingers, feet, head and eyebrows were constantly in motion, telling us something about the action and relationships on stage that went beyond the language of the playwright or the movements of the actors on stage, beyond the merely expressive into a realm that I have yet to find words for.
This is my challenge as a writer: to put together words that do in writing what Ian McKellen does in acting. It’s easy enough to have my characters cross and uncross their arms or legs, raise their eyebrows, scratch their heads, slouch, or move their lips in expressive ways. Much body language is obvious, but little things, like circular movements of the foot (boredom?), stretching the fingers (doubt, misgiving?), craning the neck (impatience?) can add immensely to characterization.