You've perhaps heard that one way to connect with readers is to use universal emotions that everyone experiences, such as happiness, sadness, grief, anger, and anticipation.
As writers, we can also use universal facial or body expressions and gestures to help readers connect with our characters. A smile is a sign of welcome, a growling dog means danger, flipping someone off means -- well, most people know what that means. Or do they?
I believe it was Paty who asked for English words her character from another country could "mangle" that would add a touch of humor. And I got to thinking how writers could help define a character by doing this with gestures or facial/body expressions in addition to just the spoken word.
Of course one of my examples involves a dog. :) A growling dog generally is giving a warning that you're treading in dangerous territory, and a dog with a wagging tail is considered friendly. However, one of my dogs wags his tail when he growls. This message seems contradictory, but there's a reason. When he was a puppy, we scolded him for growling at us. He wagged his tail to apologize and I made an off-hand comment that he'd better be wagging that tail if he was going to growl. He's now twelve years old and still wags his tail when he growls -- and looks at me to see if that's alright!
The gesture of flipping someone off generally is done in anger. However, it reminds me of a joke about a grandmother who didn't know what the gesture meant. She was dawdling through traffic, waiting until the stoplight turned yellow to go through intersections so other drivers had to wait and wait and wait. As the joke goes, someone flipped her off. Thinking that must be some new way to say "hello," the grandmother returned the one-finger wave. She got such a rousing response that she continued her meandering through downtown traffic, wreaking havoc and offering a one-finger wave in greeting and in response to blaring horns.
Smiles can also convey different messages. A smile can be broad and welcoming, mischievous, menacing or hiding what a person really feels. The character could give one message on the outside and keep their contradictory thoughts bottled inside. This can help a writer dig deeper into the character. What kind of person would do this and why? Perhaps a celebrity or public person who is always expected to be "on" or is in the camera's eye all the time. What if that person was "caught" having a bad day. What would their reaction be? (Is this where supermarket tabloids get their photos and those wild headlines?) Or a young woman who was eager to please keeps smiling at others even though her resentment of being used or victimized builds and builds inside until she flips out and becomes the smiling mass murderer.
OK, these may be extreme examples that I've not actually used in any story so far. However, as I'm starting to plot a series of books, I'm thinking of different ways to define those characters. How about you? Have you used a different take on "universal" gestures or expressions to give a character endearing -- or not so endearing -- flaws or quirks? Or do you stick with more traditional gestures such as a furrowed brow as a sign of worry?