What makes this exercise work?
Bringing characters to life for our readers is one of our most important jobs. When a character becomes as real to a reader as his or her own friends and family, you know you’ve hit the jack pot: they’ve fallen for your story and won’t stop turning the pages.
I have been deeply moved by how fond readers have grown of dear little Milo from What Milo Saw. I believe that, in part, this is due to how real he is for me: I often talk about him as enthusiastically as I talk about my little girl, Tennessee Skye. It’s also due to the work I put into creating Milo and his particular world.
One of the most powerful ways of bringing characters to life is by making them physically distinctive. I am currently writing a novel about a morbidly obese mother and so did some research into how other novelists have created overweight characters. One of these novels is Heft by Liz Moore, a moving story about a professor who becomes a recluse because he has eaten so much and grown so fat that he is embarrassed to venture out into the world. The exercise below is based on an extract from Moore’s novel.
Timing: 30 minutes
1. Read the extract below and reflect on how skilfully Liz Moore presents her character.
2. Choose a character from a story or novel you are working on or think of a new character.
3. Write this character’s name in the middle of a piece of paper and spend 10 minutes brainstorming what makes this character physically distinctive.
- You don’t need be too outlandish. It’s good to find a balance between making your character ordinary (so that your reader feels an affinity with him or her) and unusual (so that your reader is intrigued and wants to find out more).
- Be as specific as possible. Liz Moore didn’t just write about her character being fat, she made him fat in a very specific way.
- Think about what your character’s physical characteristics tell the reader about her internal life.
- Think about what your character’s physical characteristics contributes to your plot.
- Think about how your character’s physical characteristics reflects the themes of your story.
- To get you started, you could do a body scan of your character. Start with their hair, work through their facial features, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, nails, torso, waist, hips, thighs, shins, ankles, feet, toes…You’ll find that something acts as a hook and that by bearing in mind all these features you build a coherent person. Have fun with it!
4. Now spend 10 minutes writing 2-3 paragraphs in the first person, from the viewpoint of your character as he or she reflects on his or her appearance.
5. Now spend 10 minutes writing 2-3 paragraphs in from the third person, looking at your character from the outside, perhaps from the point of view of one of the other characters in your story. Notice how the things your character picks up about him or herself is different from what others focus on. This gap is a great way to get to know your character: the disjoin between perception and self-perception is fascinating.
- Apply this exercise to other characters in your novels or stories.
- Keep developing and tweaking the physicality of your character as you write – and bear in mind the relationship between the physical your character’s personality, your plot and the themes of your story.
I ruminated for a while on my size. There is a game I play in which I attempt to justify my weight. I’m six feet and three inches tall, sometimes I tell myself that I’m burly or a big guy. Both conjure images of health and fun. A woodsman, a football player, a Newport News commercial, for heaven’s sake. Some football players weigh close to four hundred pounds. But football players also have arms that are huge, huge, & legs that are like tree trunks.
But I carry most of my weight in my gut & no part of me has ever been firm. Since the age of ten, I’ve been fleshy & great, with soft arms and legs, dimpled knees, fingers that look like sausages. At this point my gut has expanded to the point of grotesquerie. My gut hangs down between my legs when I sit down. I pull my pants above it & that is the other difference. Acceptably fat men wear their pants below their guts. I knew I was unacceptably fat the day I bought pants big enough to accommodate my girth someplace above my naval, pants manufactured for men like me. Obese men. I try to deny it, to catch myself looking normal at certain angels in my front window. But for the little one over my bathroom sink, I do not keep mirrors. I do not like walking past them & catching accidental glimpses of myself. When I need to see myself I use the three-paneled window, facing Fifth Street, that serves this purpose after the sun sets. Dark on the outside, lights on the inside: Arthur Opp at his window, turning and turning s if he is upright on some invisible rotisserie. (The neighbours probably think I am very strange!). I do this for a reason: it is so that I can keep track of my size, so that I don’t wake up one day unable to walk.