The Importance of the Body in Fiction
Unless they’re a consciousness floating through space, every character has a body. This may seem obvious, but many writers ignore their character’s bodies in favor of their minds. This can happen for a number of reasons. Some of the more common ones include not thinking that bodies are important, not wanting to deal with bodies because they’re gross, and simply forgetting about them. We tend to only talk about the body when it’s doing something titillating and fun, like having sex, but our bodies exist all the time. Like clothing, your character’s body, and how it feels to be in that body, can open up a whole new dimension of development.
Everyone’s body is different. Some of these differences, like height, weight, and color, are obvious. Other differences are not so obvious, and they can make your character appear unique. Here is a short list of idiosyncrasies that your character could have.
Clinodactyly: This means that the pinkie finger is tilted inward. It can be a clinical sign, but it can also occur for no reason. Your character may find their unusual fingers to be a source of pride. They may not notice it. They may find it embarrassing.
Dry skin: If your character has dry skin, they must keep a constant supply of moisturizer. What kind of moisturizer do they buy? Organic and paraben-free? Whatever is cheapest at the 99 cent store? Olive oil and aloe vera? Scented lotion from Bath & Bodyworks? Your character’s choice can tell you a little bit about who they are, and the irritation of dry skin can make them seem more human.
Crooked teeth: Not everyone’s teeth are as straight and white as coffins. Some of us have crooked teeth. Maybe your character has teeth that are terribly, desperately disfigured, and they just can’t afford the necessary dental work. Maybe they’re only a little bit crooked, and they obsess over it. Maybe they don’t care.
There are thousands of examples, and all of them can reveal something about your character, and build them as an individual.
Let’s say that your character has been out fighting demons for three days straight. In many stories, she will be tired and beat up afterward. To some readers, this vague description can seem like a rip-off. Some readers won’t care. Some will just want to get on to the next adventure. Some readers, however, won’t attach themselves to your character if that character is not realistically affected by what happens to them. Besides that, detailing the consequences of an implausible act like fighting demons makes that act believable. Above all, you want your reader to believe you.
So how can you write about physical impact? Let’s go back to the above example. Your character is fighting demons. This probably makes her tired. How does it feel to be tired? Your body seems weighted, your eyes feel like they have grit in them, and it’s hard to focus on anything. Describe that. Besides being tired, your character probably has sore muscles. She can complain about that, or bear it silently. She might be hungry because she didn’t pack enough food. She might be thirsty because the demon slapped her canteen out of her hand. She might have bloody claw marks on her face. She might be sweaty, have grit under her fingernails and dirt in her hair. You probably know how all of these things feel, even if you don’t happen to spend your time fighting demons. All of these details add believability and depth to your story.
Let’s face it, not all of us are in perfect health. More importantly, neither are our readers. Seeing yourself portrayed correctly in a piece of media is exhilarating. For those whose bodies function in ways that are different from the norm, this experience can be hard to come by. Millions of people worldwide suffer from various chronic conditions, and many of them manage to lead full and interesting lives. Even those of us who are healthy most of the time get sick. We have colds and headaches and impacted teeth. Therefore, it seems strange when everybody in a fictional setting is healthy all the time. In fact, it can make your fictional world seem less full. Give a character allergies. Give a character diabetes. Have your character get bad cramps when they menstruate. Give your character chronic knee pain. Give your character fibromyalgia.
If you do choose to give your character a physical issue of any kind, take care not to reduce them to their condition. This can be hugely insulting to those who share the condition, and it’s lazy, one-dimensional writing. Your character may sometimes feel like their condition is their entire life, but they should have other important attributes.
Size and Shape
How much does your character weigh? What is her approximate height? These things matter for social reasons, but they also matter for physical reasons. If your character is very tall, she might have to stoop when she comes in through the door. She might have difficulty finding shoes that fit. If she’s short, she might not be able to reach high shelves without the aid of a step stool. If she’s fat, her thighs might rub painfully together when she walks for too long. She may not be able to find clothes that fit. She may be discriminated against because of her weight. If she’s thin, she might not be able to keep herself effectively warm in the winter. Any one of these things can influence how others perceive and treat your character, and how your character experiences the world.
Incongruity with Self
Your character may not like what her body is doing. She may not feel that her body represents who she is at all. This could be because her body is failing, or attacking her, as in a chronic illness. This could be because she is a transwoman, and her penis makes her feel dysphoric. She may feel like she needs to lose weight, a perceived need which can range from nagging to all-consuming. If your character’s body is not what she feels it should be, this can create some fascinating narrative tension, and the end result can range from acceptance of the body as is, to action taken to change it.
Ask Questions and Do Research
If you choose to give your character a bodily experience that you do not share, do your research. I cannot stress the enough. This especially applies to weight, trans* issues, and disability and chronic illness. A fully fleshed character is not composed of stereotypes, and a good writer does not trifle with something that real people live with. If you know someone who deals with what you choose to represent, see if they are willing to answer questions. If not, there are plenty of resources in the wide wonderful world of the Internet, so get Googling!