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?


Planning the Happily Ever After

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Times I thought I had life figured out: 57

Times I did: 0

Times I thought I had writing figured out: 98. But didn’t: 135

I was lucky enough to get to interview YA author Jordan Sonnenblick yesterday for work. Not only was he gracious, but humble, too. He has published eight books so far, and he wrote the first four in four years while still teaching full-time. He had some advice to pass along. As always, being in the presence of greatness makes me think about my own writing and how to improve. I thought I’d pass along what I’ve been mulling over since we spoke.

Picture the end of your novel before you start page one. Sonnenblick said this was advice he’d give to middle school students who hoped to become published writers one day. As an aspiring novelist pushing forty, it spoke to me in a kind of “duh, why didn’t I think of that before I went on a meandering, character-developing goose chase?” way.

When I was in my senior year of college, I had some major soul-questioning moments. There was a recession, and I couldn’t figure out how to get hired doing anything journalistic. Or, let’s be honest, how to get hired doing much of anything at all. In my college town, my peers seemed polarized into those who were already hired as assistants to the President of the United States the second they graduated and those who were going on to graduate school. I fit into neither category. My hometown of Atlanta was gearing up for the 1996 Olympics, and when I tried to get a job in public relations there, a family friend said that she had gotten several resumes from people with 15 years experience who were willing to intern for free (no money!) just to be close to the scene of the action.

I’m a planner, and I was ready to know how my life was going to turn out. If I could have, I would have flipped the pages of that book and discovered, stat, if the heroine ever gets a backbone or a clue.

Fast forward to my thirties, and applying that floundering lesson to my long projects didn’t take. I had left my characters bereft, floating on a (symbolic) raft, with no distinct goal. Or at least a rather amorphous one.

Lesson learned. Sonnenblick’s advice makes perfect sense. If only I had interviewed him a few years ago.

Head for the deep water. Sonnenblick had the good fortune of being blessed with Frank McCourt (of Angela’s Ashes fame) as a high school English teacher. Sonnenblick, already proficient at writing humor, wowed his classmates. But McCourt kept telling Sonnenblick to “head for the deep water.” As Sonnenblick said (and I’m paraphrasing here), humor without poignancy doesn’t last. True, dat.

But here’s the thing: deep water is very scary. You don’t know what’s under there. Even though I love boogie boarding in the waves, I’ve heard the stories about rip tides. That, and my mom still stands by the edge of the sand and yells, “Don’t go out too far!” I’m almost forty. Read into that what you will.

The uncomfortable bearing of my soul and the fear that no one will really relate are probably behind my adherence to the breakers. Let’s just say I’m working on it.

If Frank McCourt had been my English teacher, I would be an award-winning novelist today. Only kidding, Mr. Sonnenblick. What I remember from AP English was that my teacher, a pinched, narrow, Englishy teachery type, favored long silences punctuated by pushing her cheeks in on either side as she considered any comment. It was distressing.

As we studied the Book of Job and all the horrible things he had to endure, I had no trouble making a personal connection to the text. English class was a hair shirt that I pulled on once a day to atone for my sins. My teacher wrote only one thing on my papers that year, “Be More Specific,” or more disturbingly, “Specifics?” I never asked her what she meant.

I found my way back to writing by late freshman year. My salvation was journalism school, a refreshing change from five-paragraph essays. But please note that news stories lack, even encourage, no solid conclusion. Bingo! I can now blame both bad luck in the English teacher lottery and journalistic style for my unpublished novel.

We writers must plot out our own courses, and I’m back to the feeling of wanting to flip to the end of the book. Will I ever get to be a published novelist? I’m going to plan on it.