Using Physicality to Bring Your Characters (And Your Fiction) to Life

One of the most common challenges writers face in the character development process is conveying their personalities (even those of side characters) in a naturally complex and believable way. Here, Joan Dempsey dives into the heart of a critical element that can help you flesh out—no pun intended—your characters and enrich your novel.
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One of the most common challenges writers face in the character development process is conveying personalities (even those of side characters) in a naturally complex and believable way. Success in this aspect can mean the difference between a two-dimensional story and an immersive experience. But what's the best way to get to know your characters intimately enough to bring them to life? Here, Joan Dempsey dives into the heart of a critical element that can help you flesh out—no pun intended—your characters and enrich your novel.

This guest post is by Joan Dempsey, winner of the 2017 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award and author of This Is How It Begins, A Novel (She Writes Press, October 2017. Joan helps serious creative writers master the craft of revision through free resources, online courses and one-on-one feedback. Learn more at www.joandempsey.com

Character Development Advice: One Surefire Way to Bring Your Characters (And Your Fiction) to Life

Here’s something I hear all the time from fiction writers: “How can I make my characters more interesting?”

I’m always glad for that question, since I routinely encounter lifeless characters when reading fiction from emerging writers.

If I was restricted to one answer only, this would be it: Embody your characters!

Get directly inside their bodies. Use their physicality to help the reader know who they are as human beings.

This is easier than you might think.

After all, you already know what it feels like to be inside your own body. As I write this, for instance, I am aware of a hollowed out feeling in my belly (it's nearly time for dinner), a slump in my posture that's crimping my neck (too long at the keyboard), and a file folder jabbing into my left wrist (ah, not anymore!).

Right now, take a moment to discover what’s going on in your body.

Whatever you feel, your character could feel, too.

Too often, a character will go about his role in the story and never once think about his full bladder, or the mothball-like odor from his breath, or the clacking of his left hip when he walks.

Don’t forget, too, that characters have five senses, just like we do: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Use them. All of them.

Here are three benefits of embodying your characters:

1. Deepen your character.

For instance, if your character is intractable, and can't ever see differing points of view, give her a crick in her neck and show her trying to ease it at moments when she's being most difficult. Or if a character dreads what's coming next in his life, give him a persistent pain in his gut, and show him pressing his stomach when he's most frightened.

2. Reveal emotions.

Sweaty palms, damp armpits, erratic heartbeat, clenched teeth, vertigo, fatigue, jitters, bloating ... what could each of these things indicate about a character's emotional state? If you don't already have The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, and you write fiction, do check it out. For instance, in the section on "Gratitude,” the bodily sensations they suggest are “tingling warmth in the limbs, a release of all bodily tension, a feeling of expansion in the chest, a heart that feels ‘full,’ a comfortable warmth in the face and weakness in the knees.” Even if you didn't specifically use any of these, each will help spark answers to how your character’s emotions are revealed through her body. For instance, Warren Meck, a character in my novel, This Is How It Begins, has a habit of lowering his head and rubbing the back of his neck when he’s trying to curb his frustration.

3. Add to your plot.

I recently finished listening to Stephen King's novel, End of Watch (the third in a trilogy) and Bill Hodges, the protagonist, learns he has pancreatic cancer. King uses this diagnosis to advance his plot in several ways:

a. Increase the tension—will Hodges succumb and die?

b. Play on your sympathies, and enhance your empathy for Hodges—he feels increasingly terrible, and as a reader you might find yourself becoming aware of your own gut, which further endears you to Hodges.

c. Add another ticking clock—Hodges promises that he'll see the doctor in two days, which gives him only two days to sort out the case he’s working on.

If you're not already inside the skin of your characters, get in there now! Do this one thing, and I guarantee your characters will quickly become more interesting.

Author Photos by Greta Rybus; Cover Design by Damonza.

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