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)
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)
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.
It was a little league football game, it didn't have to end like this.
When I was in 10th grade I got into refereeing football for a little league in town. I got hired by a random booster club mom and she tells me they pay us in cash out of the snack cart money(fancy part of town selling voss and shit) but hey no problem I was 16 getting $120 cash every Saturday sounds nice. So the owner of the league (we’ll call him D from here) was a generally nice guy and had a son on a team. D was the guy living all of his failed childhood through his 9 year old kid. The season was going great except when I had to ref. his games. He would get mad at any call involving his son no matter what happened. If his kid was on the line and went off sides we were expected not to call it, well I like to make things as fair as possible for kids so I would always call it. This would set him off and he would come running from the sidelines yelling at me. I tried to talk to him multiple times but his reply was always the same, “It’s my league so it’s my rules” so I moved on and just kept doing me. The season was winding down and his kids team happened to make it into the championship game.The head coaches get to choose 1 referee each, D chose Doug (Doug’s cool, I like Doug) and the other coach chose me. D calls me mid week telling me there was going to be a NFL rep. there to do the coin toss and evaluating the league for a sponsorship. Annoyed with his mid game disruptions I decided to have some petty revenge and try to piss off D in front of the rep. On the day of the game I show up and act just like always, got everything set up then called out the captains. Out comes D with his son and the other coach and his captain. We get everything started and at 1st I let the little things go. I feel giddy but I know I have to let kid win a bit so he really feels the burn. The score was tied with 4 minutes left when I saw an opportunity to strike. It was 4th down on their own 15, Ds son was at quarterback and instead of taking the snap from center he said “hike” and picked up the ball. Normally I would let this go, but it was Ds kid so I tossed my flag. Expecting a 5-10 yard run you could imagine I was a bit surprised when he took it all the way for an 85 yard TD. Everyone on there sidelines going crazy, including D, when the other coach starts yelling “hold up, flag theres a flag.” I call a meeting in the middle of the field and explain what happened. D wasn’t having it he was staying surprisingly calm and he said I could either declare it a TD or take off my uniform, so fuck it I quit. I’m waiting for the booster lady to pay me when she gets a call and says “D told me not to pay you.” I waited till D was available and had it out with him when he makes it clear that I was paid under the table and that I could basically go get fucked. Time for some serious fucking revenge. I talk to that NFL rep on the way out and tell him what’s going on and he seemed a little pissed off. Then I went ahead and gave a call to the IRS and gave them all the information I had. I forgot about it for a few weeks. Then, I got a call from Doug asking if I was the one that called him in and he explained that D had 6 other businesses that had a lot of under table dealings. He ends the call by saying. “That was pretty fucked up. It was just a little league football game, it didn’t have to end like this.” D had a multi-million dollar house, 2 nice cars, and a loving family and $120 screwed him out of it all.
I took way too long on this but I wanted to make this overly complicated ref sheet for myself and potential people I want to commission to draw these two nerds…tbh if I wasn’t so lazy I’d put a few more angles here and there.