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.