A few years ago, I had a coworker I didn’t like. For the sake of privacy, let’s call her Lucy.
The first day I met Lucy, we exchanged a handful of words in passing–hello, I’m Elena, nice to meet you, oh, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, I’m on my way out just now. I don’t remember the exact words anymore, but I imagine it was something along those lines–pleasantries at best. There was something about her expression that was off-putting, a little too wide-eyed and eager, a little too excited for just meeting a new coworker.
The next day, Lucy tucked my hair behind my ear. We were standing next to each other as part of a small conversational huddle, and she just reached out and did it.
Though this was years ago, I still remember the shock and disgust I felt. I am comfortable with a lot of casual affection…from people I know, in the appropriate environment. Not from someone I met the day before, in the workplace.
Yes, my hair was slightly out of place. Yes, I was wearing sparkly earrings. Lucy mumbled something about wanting to get a better look at them as I stepped back, out of her reach.
While I remember clearly how I felt, I don’t remember a word of what I said to her. I should have stated, “Don’t touch me.” Boundaries are important to establish. But I didn’t–I kept my distance from her for the rest of the time we worked together. Which, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who turned out to be a habitual space-invader, wasn’t long.
That feeling of near-revulsion from just a heartbeat of inappropriate contact is something I summon up when I’m writing a scene involving characters who dislike each other. Maybe with them, it never goes that far, but how would two unfriendly people react if they were forced to sit together on a bus, their shoulders pressed together because there wasn’t enough space? Stiff posture. Short, snappy sentences, if they spoke at all. If the bus ride were long enough, maybe there would be fraying tempers when they were jostled by a bump in the road once too often, leading to some sort of argument loud enough to embarrass them in front of the other passengers, which would only fuel the cycle of discomfort between them even more.
Now, that’s not a scene I’ve actually written in any of my projects. That all came from one emotion and a simple what-if situation. But I bet you can imagine it. You’re not seeing the same two unnamed characters I am, of course, and maybe your bus ride is at night, while mine was during the day…but that’s not the point. The body language lays the foundation for the character interactions. It’s not enough to know that one of your characters doesn’t like anyone in their personal space, and to keep them in a bubble away from everyone–you have to know how they’d react when the bubble gets broken.
Would they say “Don’t touch me,” firmly, matter-of-factly, like I wish I had to Lucy? Would they shout at the interloper and storm off in a huff? Or would they quietly distance themselves?