Getting Physical: an exercise for character development

Rare early illustrated work by Matisse, Trois Poemes par Monsieur Pierre Reverdy
Rare early illustrated work by Matisse, Trois Poemes par Monsieur Pierre Reverdy

Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.

-From Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill

We cannot transcend the physical though we may like to believe we can through religion, philosophy, literature, and any other means we can grasp. Truth is the physical shapes every thought and emotion we have and, therefore, creates the world as we sense it.

Characterization can often become top heavy. With so much thinking, reacting, and feeling to capture on the page, we may forget that most of our daily lives involve the less aesthetic, more base rituals: the brushing of teeth, relieving bodily urges, showering, and feeding appetites. These activities comprise a good fraction of our everyday lives. How can we step into the bodies of our characters and inhabit them fully? Of course we may choose not to spend a page or even a paragraph on the pot, but we do need to consider our characters and their universe viscerally. The six senses should be a constant.

No matter the scene or circumstance, sensory perceptions are a writer’s first instinct.  Think of how your main character reacts to her surroundings. How does she, as a volatile element herself, combine with other bodies and elements around her.

  • If she were a scent what kind would she be? What scent clings to her? Which smells remind her of childhood? Teenage years of trepidation and adult age of ambivalence?
  • What taste might your supporting character always hunger for? What taste reminds him of home? How does he savor a glass of whiskey? What taste lingers with him after sex? What does he imagine his lover’s skin tastes like?
  • What does his voice sound like? Count the rhythm of his breathing? Describe the sound of her tread? How does she sound when she sleeps? What tone does he use when he’s talking to his mother over the phone as opposed to the women he meets at the bar? How does he hear the alarm in the morning? Does the radio set off a panic attack? Does his sister’s voice over the phone remind him of sibling rivalry at age seven? Does the staticky voice over the metro station speaker set off nerves?
  • How do they handle their food? How do they reach out to their lovers? Do they paw, fumble, or grasp gingerly? Tell us the textures of their skin and their hair. How does their palm feel? Rough and course or silky smooth? The tips of their fingers? Does pain blossom into bright explosions? Does sweat trickle or pour?
  • Your characters can’t possibly observe everything around them. If you’re narrating in the third, what observations does your protagonist miss? Does she only follow the flight of birds? Or perhaps she keeps her gaze to the ground? Is he searching for the woman with the bluest eyes?
  • Lastly, how do they grapple with space? How much space does she take up? How does she fill up her space? Does she add to the energy when she’s among strangers at a cocktail party? Does he suck up the energy of his wife? Is she a cyclone of anxiety? Do her co-workers even notice when she’s present?  Describe his equilibrium. Does he swerve, or is he a straight shot? Is she always stumbling and bumping into tables and chairs, or does she seem to float on air?

Taste:

From Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Third Resignation” in Collected Stories (Harper Perennial 1984):

There was that noise again. That cold, cutting, vertical noise that he knew so well now; but it was coming to him now sharp and painful, as if he had come unaccustomed to it overnight.

It was spinning around inside his empty head, dull and biting. A beehive had risen up inside the four walls of his skull. It grew larger and larger with four successive spirals, and it beat on him inside, making the stem of his spinal cord quiver with an irregular vibration, out of pitch with the sure rhythm of his body.

Don’t just dip your feet, step into the bodies of your characters.

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