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!
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.
During a fiction-writing class I once took, the teacher advised me to get my name out there before even thinking about submitting a book for publication. Getting my name out there meant, of course, getting my work published in literary journals.
I’m taking her advice. My current goal is publishing ten short stories before I think seriously about polishing and submitting one of the various novels languishing on my hard drive. Why should I put in so much effort, and wait so long, though? Well, here’s what my teacher said, and a bit of my own thoughts on the matter.
- Agents and publishers would be more likely to be willing to deal with you if they knew that other publishers have dealt with you before. They assume that if their colleagues have put up with you long enough to publish you, then you must be professional and easy to work with. When you’re just starting out, you definitely want publishers to think that you are those things. Your actual self-presentation will have to do most of the work here, but being able to say, “hey, these dudes think I’m cool too” won’t hurt your case.
- Not only will previously published work make you look mature and awesome, it will also make your writing look worth reading. If a publisher, who gets hundreds of submissions a day, gets a random submission from someone who’s never been published before, she has to actually read the thing to know if it’s good or not. Which she might not do. If you’ve been published, that means someone liked you enough to publish you, which means you are worth her valuable time.
- It gives you more time to get experience and improve your work. If you’re a beginner, that novel of yours probably needs more work, anyway. Even if you think it’s perfect right now, time and experience will show you how to make it more than perfect.
- Your stories are definitely, definitely going to be rejected, but if you’re paying attention to who rejects you and who accepts you, you’ll get a good sense of where your work belongs. The more you know, the better chance you have of getting something big published, like a book.
Being a beginner myself, I have no idea if this actually works, but hey, it looks good on paper. So far, I’ve got three stories out, and once I hit ten, I’m going to start trying to find a publisher for one of my various novels. And also editing those novels. Because that’s important, too.
One of my least favorite aspects of writing is deciding what my characters are wearing.
Although I have definite preferences about what I put on my own body, I don’t usually notice what the people in my life are wearing. Heck, I didn’t even know what color my now-fiance’s eyes were until we’d been dating for three months–that’s how unobservant I am. Constructing outfits for my characters is painful. Half the time, all I can think of is…”pants…? A…shirt? With…buttons? And…shoes…?” Not the most enlightening description, I know.
For a long time, I thought it didn’t matter. I thought that what a person chose to put on their body was always incidental, and that detailing it could only disrupt, not enhance, a story. Talking to one of my closest friends, Carla, an aspiring fashion designer as well as a talented writer, helped me to see how a character’s clothes can work in the writer’s favor.
My outfits as a teenager were outlandish–neon pink hot pants with ripped tights, combat boots, and a blue dress shirt one day, a shiny evening gown from Goodwill the next, and tee shirts with anime characters faces stretched across my tits on weekends. I’d been bullied for the last decade, and I was finally free, so I was being as ridiculously “individual” as I could to make up for lost time. Although I’m sure that my mother disapproved of many of my more bizarre combinations, she let me wear what I wanted most of the time. I had no idea who I was, and I was trying on different outfits in order to discover that.
This kind of identity confusion is typical of teenagers. If you’re writing a YA novel or a coming-of-age story, your character is probably trying desperately to figure out where they fit in. Their clothes can reflect who they wish they were, who they think they should be, and who they feel they are inside but can’t express in other ways.
Time and Place
Your character’s clothing can help you ground your story in a particular time and place. Most writers of historical fiction already know how important their character’s clothes are for establishing credibility. Dressing your British, Victorian-era woman in a yukata would be confusing. Giving that same Victorian-era woman a computer bag would be laughable. For most serious writers of historical fiction, this stuff is second nature.
It’s easy to forget about it when it comes to work set in modern day, especially work set close to home. Writers should expect and anticipate readers from all over the world. It may be obvious to me what an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn would wear–all I have to do is look at my mother–but that doesn’t mean that someone from Bangkok will picture the same thing that I do. Heck, it doesn’t even mean that someone from New Jersey will. We’re all familiar with our own cultural contexts, but we can’t expect everyone else to be. Telling you what my Italian-American female character from Brooklyn is wearing not only helps my readers to picture my character–and her culture–more clearly, but it will resonate with Italian-American women from Brooklyn if I’m doing it right.
Of course, I have to be careful not to stereotype–not every Italian-American woman from Brooklyn has the same sense of style as my mother!
Culture and Values
Some cultures have more rigid codes of dress than others. An Italian-American woman from Brooklyn can usually wear whatever she wants, unless she fits into other categories that don’t allow it, but Hasidic Jews have a pretty strict standard of dress. If your character is a Hasidic Jew, whether or not he conforms to this standard tells you something about how he relates to his culture, and what his values are.
This also applies to less deeply rooted affiliations. A teenager who dresses like a punk may be doing so because she aligns herself with the subculture. If she does, then her outfit can tell you something about what her values are. If she doesn’t, then her outfit might signify something else entirely.
People dress differently depending on what mood they’re in. A person in a good mood might shower, blow-dry her hair, put on makeup, iron her clothes, and shine her shoes. She does this because she has the energy to take care of herself in a way that makes her happy. She might do none of these things because her good mood compels her to put on some hiking boots and head for the woods, or to watch Naruto in her pajamas while eating ice cream. She may do any one of these things because she’s in a bad mood–they are comforting, and make her feel better. She may dress in all black to indicate her unhappiness, or she may dress in all black because she lives in New York City.
I was bullied relentlessly as a child and teenager, and it tore my self-esteem to shreds. I hated myself as a teenager, and I because I was sexually harassed along with being bullied, I thought my only value lay in attracting boys. I couldn’t make any overtures to them, because I was afraid of people, but I could certainly make myself look attractive. I slathered on makeup, and wore low cut belly shirts, and see-through miniskirts that didn’t cover much of anything. I wasn’t consciously aware of why I was dressing this way until I got older, but the adults in my life could see it, and so could my friends.
Your character may dress this way due to low self-esteem, but she might also hide herself in baggy clothes. She might wear revealing clothes not because she hates herself, but because she loves herself and wants to show off her body. Sweatpants and a t-shirt might indicate that she feels beautiful and loveable no matter what she wears.
When you establish how your character feels about herself, her clothes can help accentuate those feelings.
I have a character named Rue. Rue has a slew of allergies, but because he doesn’t have health insurance–he lives in the USA, no free healthcare here–none of them are diagnosed. He spends his life figuring out what he’s allergic to through trial and error. By the time he’s a teenager, he has a very short list of things that he can eat, touch, and smell without having symptoms. This includes fabrics–there are some that he can wear with no problem, and there are others that will make his throat close up.
Once this is established, if I call attention to the fact that Rue is wearing a type of fabric that he doesn’t know his reaction to, it means that he’s being more daring than usual. If he’s wearing a type of fabric that he knows is a problem, it means he’s being thoughtless or self-destructive. Just a simple choice of fabric can tell you a lot about the character’s current state.
Your character’s clothes can also reflect their physical and emotional state. Does your character always wear long sleeves to hide her self-injury scars? If so, wearing a short-sleeved shirt could indicate a major change. Does she always wear short sleeves because she can’t stand the feel of fabric on her arms? How might this choice affect her on a cold day in January?
It’s important to establish how it feels to be in your main character’s body. The body and the mind are firmly connected, but the body is all too easy to ignore. Don’t ignore the body, and don’t ignore how your character decorates it. Both can help establish what’s going on in the character’s mind, without you having to blatantly say, “he felt that _____”.
How to work it in…
One of the hardest parts of describing a character is figuring out where to do it. Unless your character is in the fashion industry, a paragraph detailing their outfit down to the last button will seem out of place, and, to many readers, boring. You don’t want to open your story with your main character rifling through her closet, unless she’s going to find an entrance to another world in there, you want to open it with something gripping. So how, then, do you get across this information?
There are many ways to do this, and each writer has to find one that works best for them. My favorite method goes like this: you blend the details into the story, one at a time.
Example: Natalie pulled her black Doc Martens off without untying the laces, then shucked off her tights and lay down, kicking the boots under the bed.
This example doesn’t tell us everything that Natalie’s wearing. It tells us that she’s wearing boots–not everyone will know what Doc Martens are, but it provides an extra visual for those who do, while still providing enough information for those who don’t. It’s difficult to get most boots off without untying the laces, so the fact that she does this indicates that she’s too tired to go through the process. We also know something about her over all style, though we don’t yet know why she’s chosen it. The information doesn’t hijack the narrative, it works with it.
Later, you can tell us about her matted black hair, her thick eyelashes, her penchant for stealing her mother’s makeup and putting on twice as much as she needs, her men’s Radiohead t-shirts with the collar ripped out, and the golden music note charm that her dad gave her after a piano recital, but we don’t need to know it all up front. Tell us when it’s relevant, and blend it with action.
As you may have noticed, context is key. If you simply shove your character into an outfit and leave it at that, your reader will fill in the blanks. This can be a good thing, but they might form the wrong impression. Lets go back to the example of myself as a teenager. I dressed the way I did because of low self-esteem, but someone else could dress the exact same way because she loved herself. She might dress that way for no reason at all. A lot of people assume that people who dress in revealing clothes are having a lot of sex, or that their morals are lacking. If your character’s fashion choices have multiple meanings, you need to make it clear which one applies to your character.
In my example about Rue, no one is going to know what his fabric choices mean, or think that they’re even remotely relevant, if I don’t establish his allergies beforehand. I have to imbue the detail with meaning, not just throw the detail out there and expect the reader to understand.
Without context and good character development, your readers may not understand the point you’re trying to make with your character’s clothes. It’s hard to hit just the right notes, but the better you know your character, the easier it becomes.