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!
The First Night of NaNoWriMo
NaNoWriMo begins on November 1st, which means November 1st midnight, not November 1st whenever the heck I wake up, or November 1st whenever I get home from work/school/various obligations. Whether you start writing at midnight or not, that’s when it starts. My advice to all you NaNo’ers is to start at midnight if at all possible. Even if you can only scribble a hundred words on a napkin in between customers, write something at midnight. Why? Because if you do, you’ll wake up the next day with something on the page. Even if it’s crap, it’s something. And something is important. Something means that you started. Something means that you might actually do this NaNo thing.
Assuming that you’re taking my advice, here are some tips for how to go about this.
- Keep the Halloween festivities under control. Guys, I know it’s Halloween. If you’re young, you’re out running around in a ghost costume trying to stuff as much candy as you possibly can into a plastic bag. If you’re an adult, maybe you’re going to a party. All well and good, but don’t stay out too late, and don’t get so drunk that you can’t write. Have a drink! Have two! I’m not telling you not to have fun, I’m just telling you to reign it in enough that you can kick start your NaNo-sperience right.
- Caffeine is not your friend. Remember, you’re starting at midnight. Unless you’re working the night shift, or you’re nocturnal, you’re going to want to get to sleep at some point during the night. Drinking coffee late at night may keep you up for much longer than you can continue to write coherently. If you must have some caffeine, consider a cup of white tea—it’s high in brain-pleasing antioxidants, and the caffeine level isn’t high enough to keep you up all night.
- Aim to write at least 667 words before going to bed. Or 500. Or 300. Or 50. Write something, anything is fine. Personally, I aim for 667, because then I have a nice, round, 1,000 words to knock out in the morning.
- Study any outlines or notes beforehand. This is important. At midnight, you want to be able to just burst right out of the gate and start writing. You don’t want to get distracted by rereading your notes. You might edit them! You might spend time tweaking your plot when you could be writing it. Now is the time for accumulating words, not perfecting the details. If you don’t have any notes, forget about it, just let those fingers fly.
- If you absolutely cannot function so late at night, wake up early. Even though I strongly advocate scribbling down something before you hit the sack, I recognize that not everyone is capable of staying up until midnight. Some of you might have to be up at 4 AM. Some of you may need twelve hours of sleep to function during the day. Some of you may be nocturnal. If you absolutely must wait to start writing, do it, but carve out a little bit of time before you start your day. Unless you’re absolutely positive that you can bang out 1,677 words in one go on the first day, it’s a good idea to divide it up into chunks, to get you used to it.
- If you’ve lost power due to Hurricane Sandy, wait until morning. Hopefully, the hurricane will be over and done with by Wednesday night, but some may be left with residual issues. If your home has no power, you likely don’t have a light source. It’s best to save your flashlight batteries for other things, and it’s dangerous to write by candle light. Prioritize your safety, and wait until daylight.
Books from top left to bottom right: I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki, Bed by Tao Lin, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, and Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball.
One of the things that identifies you as an “intelligent” or “cultured” person is familiarity with the literary canon. This alone is a somewhat arbitrary standard. For me, it’s incredibly important to read the classics, because I intend to be a writer and an English teacher, but I think my brother, who is majoring in physics, would be better served by reading scientific articles than 19th century novels–unless, of course, he really liked 19th century novels. These books might grow my soul, but others find their inspiration elsewhere, and that’s okay. But let’s say for now that it’s important for everyone to be well-versed in the literary canon. What, then, does that canon consist of? And who decides it?
There are millions of books floating around in the world. Generally, the classics are the ones written decades or centuries ago–those that have withstood the test of time. But what are the standards by which these books are considered to be universally important? What are the standards by which we choose which books are taught in school? Just about everybody reads The Great Gatsby in high school, or at least they did when I was growing up. Why is this book better than anything else F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, or anything else that was written at the time? Is it because it’s easy to use it to fulfill curricular goals? Is it because reading it will somehow improve people’s minds, moreso than any other book about the same topic?
Certainly, some books are better than others. The Great Gatsby is a skillfully written book. But what about The Iliad? It’s a classic because it’s a relic of a long-past age, because it’s one of the first texts that we have to go on. But if you read it, you see that it’s promoting rape. You could say that it’s important to understand what things were like during the time it was written, and you’d be right, but why do we then read it uncritically? Why don’t we talk about how unacceptable that is, and not just about it’s historical context? Why do we have to read about men being given women to rape as a reward for killing villagers in order to be cultured and intelligent? Why is Franz Kafka’s work considered classic when it was published posthumously against his will? Why are Shakespeare’s plays, which weren’t meant to be read but to be seen, and which weren’t even written by completely by him in the first place, considered mandatory reading? Why did no one ever tell me to read Natsume Soseki?
There are books that I personally feel that everyone should read. This is because I personally enjoyed reading them, and feel that doing so made my life better. But this is a small cache of books, because there are only so many books I as an individual can read. No one can read all the books, and no one can know for certain which books will be best for which person, except, of course, that person. As things are, it is important to be familiar with the literary canon, because it will be referenced repeatedly. It’s important to be able to read and understand the cultural script. But the cultural script is determined by what we continue to read. If we collectively decided that we didn’t need to read Shakespeare anymore, after a few generations, we’d stop referencing him.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t read Shakespeare, or Homer, or Kafka, or Fitzgerald. I am arguing that we read Soseki, and that we also read other writers of color, and that that be a mandatory part of any literary curriculum. We should be reading women writers and venerating them along with their male peers. The books that American society deems worthy of note are written by white men. This is a problem because America does not consist solely of white men. Women and people of color need to see what people like themselves have accomplished, and see those accomplishments viewed as just as important as the work of white men.
Also, we need to be reading contemporary literature, if we care about literature as a concept and not just historical benchmarks. If we don’t see what people are doing now, we’ll have a heck of a time seeing where our own work might fit in. If we’re not writers, we still should be doing this, so that we can see how the world we live in is reflected in art, and thus gain a better understanding of that world–meaning, our world, not the world of our great-great-grandparents. It’s important to learn about history, but we’re rarely asked to read contemporary books in school, and we should be.
When we think about what should be in the literary canon, we need to stop naming books we haven’t actually read. We need to stop saying that books are classics because they are classics. We need to be deciding what we think about books based on their actual literary merit, and we need to include a big pile of books not written by dead, white man.
Image Copyright Nanowrimo.org.
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is the brainchild of Chris Baty. It’s an event in which you write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Every year since 1999, thousands of people have signed up for this challenge. Many of them came out of it with a first draft of a novel on their hard drive. Some, such as Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, even turned their first draft into a book deal. Pounding out a novel in just a month might seem daunting, but don’t despair! There are simple guidelines which can help you make it to the finish line without too much heartache.
1,667 words a day…or not?
Seasoned NaNo’ers know 1,667 as the magic number—the number of words you have to write per week if you want to make it to 50,000 in thirty days. If you’re a methodical person with a predictable schedule, this strategy is your winning ticket. But what if your life is more scattered? What if Sunday is the only day you can see your boyfriend, Monday you have classes from from dawn until dusk and a graveyard shift at K-Mart, and then on Tuesday you have nothing to do? Everyone has a different schedule, and you have to figure out a pace that works well for you. This isn’t an excuse to fall behind. Some people thrive on the mad dash to the finish line, and write 50,000 words in a week, but most people can’t do this, and it isn’t healthy to try. Work on your novel whenever you can, but don’t sweat it if one day you write 3,000 words and the next day you only write 500.
Before trying out NaNoWriMo for the first time, many people wonder whether they should outline the plots of their stories, or develop their characters extensively before the start of NaNoWriMo. There are as many different answers to this question as there are participants. Some people love the planning stages. They map out everything about their story before they write a single word. For some of those people, that works great. For others, too many planning can kill their love for a story, or make them freeze up at the thought of committing their ideas to paper. Not planning anything also has mixed results. Some people write best by learning what their story is about as they go. Others need direction, or they get stuck. Most people work best with a strategy that’s somewhere in the middle. You should know something about your story, but not everything. You know, for example, that your main character is a dragon slayer who has no idea what to do when faced with robot dragons. You don’t know that he’s going to fall in love with one of the robot dragons. Know what works for you!
Your Social Network
Some people undertake NaNoWriMo with a group of friends, and rely on each other for support throughout the process. They meet up for write-ins, have contests to see who can wrote the most over the span of ten minutes or an hour, help each other develop plots and characters, commiserate, and cheer each other on. If your friends aren’t doing NaNoWriMo, encourage them to join you. If they’re not interested, all is not lost—there’s still a number of ways to connect with fellow NaNo’ers. The NaNoWriMo.org website has an incredible forum where one can gain support, and municipal liaisons in various locations all over the world organize write-ins, parties, and other events to get you writing and to help you meet other people who are doing the same. To find a municipal liason near you, click here.
It can be tempting to dedicate every waking moment to NaNoWriMo, and many participants will urge you to do so. You may have to cancel social engagements in favor of your novel, and you may have to spend less time on other hobbies. Remember, though, that NaNoWriMo is not more important than your life. It is not more important than your five-year anniversary with your wife. It is not more important than taking your son to the dentist. It is not more important than going to work or going to school. It is not more important than eating healthy food, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep. NaNoWriMo should be fun, and it should be challenging, but it should not consume your life.