Let’s Get Physical

Look at this gorgeous lily we saw at the zoo!

Miles run today: 5

Words written in my novel so far: 43,145

Temperature outside at 3 p.m.: 75!!!!! Wow.

When I was a teenager, boys did not rush up behind me and throw me over their shoulders like I was a cuddly little creature.

Of course, at age 15, this is exactly what I wanted them to do.

At 5’9″, I had no right to expect that kind of treatment, given that several of the boys wouldn’t top 5’9″ until their college years. And maybe it’s tough to project cuddliness when your body screams “Tall and Intimidating.”

Even today, I might see a precious jacket on display in a store. I approach the sleeve, check the tag, and an evil “Petite” label makes me jump back. I expect alarms to sound: “Please exit the Petite section immediately. Security: a Giant has breached the Petite borders.”

Physicality is something I think about quite a bit as I climb into my characters’ skins and walk around for a while.

As a writer, I think about all sorts of backstory: what makes a character the person he is today, why she hates olives, why he votes Republican, why she would get especially upset when told the grocery store was out of Clean Shower.

But from the very beginning of character creation, I think about what it feels like to physically be that person.

1. Size

One of our neighbors is 6’4″ and stands all day long for his job. Would he be intimidated when he walked around a university campus at 3 a.m.? Would students be afraid of him? Do his feet hurt all the time?

A friend of mine is 5’1″ with heels on, and her weight barely registers on a standard scale. I told her once that I’d like to participate in our local running store’s weekly group runs, but they run at a 6:30 pace. For six miles.

“Oh, you could do that, no problem! Don’t sell yourself short!” she said.

Um, no. They would have to scoop me up off the side of the road and carry me back. Oh, wait. I’m too big. They’d have to bring a car.

All I could think about was how light she must feel as she runs, how if she jumped into my body and tried to do even an 11:00 pace, she might cry with fatigue. “The weight of your legs is too much! Too much!” I pictured her moaning. “Please–anything but that!”

2. Skin color

Setting aside issues of culture, which are more complex, how do other characters react to your character based on something as basic as skin color?

A good friend of mine who is African American said that when she went shopping with her white friends as a teenager, she had more than one incident where the clerk followed her around to see if she would steal something. The white friend? Free to roam and shoplift at will.

Does this make your character bitter? Or does she have more empathy for other people who have experienced prejudice?

My friend had rather rowdy exchanges on Facebook recently with both black and white friends weighing in on whether or not Kathryn Stockett should have been so successful for writing a story about race relations, being white and all.

What would your character say if she had to respond on Facebook? Is she comfortable in her own skin?

3. Health

When someone complains of pain, do you ever wonder: how would that same pain register if I were feeling it?

My daughter shrieks like a banshee when I brush her hair. I’m surprised Child Protective Services hasn’t been called out for the way she carries on. “It hurrrrrrrts! Owwwwwww! EEeeeeeeeee!” She’s nine now, and it hasn’t changed.

I watch some kids fall on their heads and walk away bleeding, and it barely registers.

Is your character a hypochondriac? Does he have a chronic illness or even a condition he is not yet aware of? Have the years of living life dangerously affected her liver? When people ask her how she’s feeling for the sixtieth time, does it make her want to stomp on bubble wrap in a quiet library?

4. Beauty

It’s a simple fact: good looking people are more successful. They get better jobs, better partners, better treatment at the customer service desk. Sometimes, people give them free things. Just for existing.

Is your character beauty-challenged? Does she wear shapeless knit pants and gray t-shirts to avoid calling attention to herself?

Or is he so gorgeous that people stop and stare as he walks by? If so, has he always been so nice-looking, or did he go through a terribly awkward period when he was 14 and faced braces, glasses and bad skin?

What would it be like to walk around for a few days in your main character’s skin? How can you use her physical presence to make us understand what makes her tick? And what else do you take into consideration when you are writing or thinking about a character’s outward appearance? How can you show us what your character looks like through the reactions of the other characters?

34 thoughts on “Let’s Get Physical

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Unless there’s a reason not to, I like to give my characters a physical flaw, because we all have them, but I don’t think I’ve thought about the issue too deeply. You raise some interesting questions that will bring the concept more to the forefront during my writing.

    It’s funny how society always suggests that tall women are so sexy and glamorous, yet that’s certainly not the experience most tall women go through, especially when growing up and always being the tallest girl in the class! But it sure is nice being able to reach for things in high places. 🙂

  2. vanster101 says:

    I always wished i were the people in the books were they could get hurt really, really, badly, without crying out in pain. All they do is go “Ouch!” But, they can walk away from it so quickly, even if there is blood dripping down there head. I mean really!

    I know it would hurt, but i wonder what it would be like to be a character for a day. Probably, from the books we have read, i would not want to be the character because someone is chasing them, and they get hurt a lot. CRAZY!!!!

  3. David Gentry says:

    John Le Carre is a great writer to watch how he develops character from appearances and mannerisms. He really seems able to get into the skin of English characters. Last night, I read a scene in which there were English people and the brillance of it was awe inspiring.

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    This is an interesting question for me because I’m someone who doesn’t need much in the way of physical descriptions for characters. I struggle with providing enough basics for a reader to form his own opinion. I’m not one for giving much more than hair and eye color and general height and build.

    Flaws are tough for me, too, because sometimes I feel like they’re forced onto a character just so the reader has something to react to. Of course, when they’re done well and fit the story, then that’s as they should be.

    This is probably one of the areas that will keep me (and probably others) from reaching the levels of the truly great and really good authors. 🙂

  5. Love the insights you’ve given me he about how other writers might think about their characters. I’m writing a lot of memoir at the moment, and it’s such a different experience to writing fiction – I’m now looking at people from my perspective (essentially the outside) rather than inhabiting them as I would have to do with fiction. I’m discovering that there’s a fine line between judgement and observation.

    • annewoodman says:

      Ooooh–very good point! As someone who does make some judgments about others (not even always positive/negative, just about their lives without really knowing), I think about that quite a bit. What an eye-opening and thought-provoking process, though!

      Thanks for the comment. I’d love to read about your thought process as you write your memoir.

      • Thanks Anne. One of the things that has helped with my memoir , is the feedback other writer friends have given me on some of my posts, which I can then apply to my private work. I wrote a post called Exposure, which was about an experience I had meeting a celebrity. When they read the first draft they felt that I came across as rather ‘in love with myself’ because I’d had this encounter!! It made me take a step back and realise that I had falled into the trap of being starstruck, where we fantacise about being important to famous people, and thinking myself more worthy than I was. Oh dear. It was a humbling experience: I had judged myself an equal to this man. The version on my blog is a second draft, but I was still nervous posting it, wondering whether I had got that line between observation and judgement. There is also an incident that occurs between the famous person and his young daughter, which I write about – and the feedback was that people wanted me to comment more on how I felt about this. But I do feel there is a certain point that you need to step back as a writer and allow your reader to make up their mind. Though, it is important to give some indication of your feelings, otherwise your readers feel that you are emotionally absent.

      • annewoodman says:

        I always find it interesting to get feedback on what I’ve written… in my critique group, sometimes people react in a different way than I might expect. I guess this is what very famous, successful writers experience all the time!

        Sometimes one of us will say that the writer we’re critiquing needs to flesh out how the main character is feeling about certain information, and sometimes others of us will disagree. Writing is so subjective.

        It is very helpful to have a blog and get comments… I think they have helped me grow as a writer, especially because I’m writing about myself in these posts, something I never thought I would do. Congrats on writing an entire book about your life! Wow.

  6. I liked the aspects you’ve focused on here Anne. Like a lot of these things, even if they are never specifically mentioned in the book, just knowing them yourself adds richness to the text. As someone who is not a planner when it comes to writing, this is something I need to pause for and focus on more!

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, true enough that not all of these details need to be spelled out for the reader. But the writer should think about: does that character move slowly because of her illness? Could he really “dash” at age 85? I love to see how a skillful writer can share small details about each character that help us know him or her better.

  7. Subtlekate says:

    These are very good issue to think about and I haven’t covered some of them so you’ve given me pause here.

    • annewoodman says:

      I’m afraid I can get a little too interested in backstory and motivation and specific character details at times. I love to hear people’s stories in real life, so I want my characters to have the same kind of rich history. Perhaps putting my word count in peril?? ; )

  8. Melissa says:

    I hate the petite section…they have all the cute clothes. I had a sales woman say “you know you’re in the petite section, dear?” once. Since I was shopping for a petite friend, it was all good…ahem.

    It is tricky with characters because even after you decide what you want your characters to be, the readers always interpret them differently. How often does Hollywood pick the actor you think should play a particular character…kind of like Tom Cruise as the Vampire Lestat – What? Yeesh!

    • annewoodman says:

      Or Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum?? What?

      Did you know Interview with a Vampire was published in the ’70s?? I didn’t; just looked it up. In the ’90s, it was a “new” book to me.

  9. Holly says:

    I feel the same way about the petite section! I feel like alarms will go off if I accidentally browse in there!

    I love hearing about how you approach your characters. You bring up a lot of things I hadn’t thought about.

  10. The physical attributes definitely affect the personality of our characters/ Not only how they see themselves, but how they react to how others view and respond to them. How do they compensate for perceived flaws? Do they buy into what others think of them? Excellent grist for the mill of character building.

  11. Amy Mak says:

    Really, really good questions for a writer to ask! I had the opposite problem growing up – teensy weensy and I was very self-conscious of it for a long time. It definitely affected my assertiveness. Now I’m good 🙂 It’s like the adage…”walk around in someone else’s shoes…” Wouldn’t it be cool if we really could?

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes! I’ve always been cold-natured, but I remember being pregnant the night of Halloween one year. I wore shorts and a t-shirt and let the wind sweep around me. It felt amazing! All I could think about was that this was how many men felt… all the time. So different.

  12. 4amWriter says:

    I love developing physical traits for characters, but I try to avoid making them sound like a wanted poster. 🙂

    I love how you get into the why’s–the history behind all of these traits. I absolutely agree that many people in real life often behave/act/think because of, or in spite of, a physical trait. I think that’s more interesting than the physical trait itself. So, the hero is handsome, big whoop. How he acts or thinks with that ‘handsome’ label is where the real meat is.

    Good post.

    • annewoodman says:

      Thanks, Kate. I do think our physical reality as we move through space can affect mood, goals, actions, speed, state of mind, friendships, activities… the list goes on and on. Granted, it’s only a small piece of your character building… but an important one.

      I dislike lists of traits, too!

  13. Ravena Guron says:

    Eeee! I haven’t even thought about physical flaws – I’ve been concentrating on the emotional ones. Really great post! Sometimes it’s hard to implement physical flaws, but what I hate most is when characters “pretend” to have physical flaws They spend the whole book complaining about them, when they don’t really exist. I once read a book where the MC had red hair. She thought it was a flaw, yet everyone else thought it was gorgeous. I was like “author! Give her an ACTUAL flaw!”

  14. Jay Helms says:

    Creative post! This is actually the kinda thing I was thinking about when I mentioned giving book hints in the blog. It’s fun to get a glimpse into the work in some way, while it is being shaped and written.

  15. Truly a lot to think about here, and I’m keeping this post open to re-read. However, at this moment all I can consider is I now have an earworm and it won’t go away.
    Thank you. I think. Maybe if I fire up some AC/DC?

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