Playing the Part (Pt 1): Character Physicality

When I was a little girl sitting in my room alone, I liked to pretend to be my friends. I would talk like them, make jokes like them, and even walk like them. I wasn’t very good at it and to this day impressions are not my forte, but I think that’s what paved the way for me to study theater and acting in college.

I’ve always had an interest in other people and what motivates them. You’d think I would have studied psychology in college (and I did… for one semester), but there’s something about taking on the role of someone else that enabled me to really study human behavior and motivations. I was very much a method actor and tried to intuit the characters I played from the scripts and comparing them to either real people or other characters I’d seen in movies and plays that I thought were similar. I loved taking lines on sheets of paper and making them people, and I wanted to do my best to make them as real as possible.

Does that last line sound familiar?

As writers, we do this. We take dialogue and character traits and work them together to make people who seem as real as anyone. And if you do it right, they become real to your readers.

Obviously, I didn’t follow through on an acting career, but I’ve found that a lot of what I learned in college I can use to help create characters.

Let’s Get Physical

Physicality is an important aspect of characterization. People aren’t still creatures. We fidget and move about, often without realizing we are doing it. Your characters need to do this too. If you don’t, all you have is words and talking heads.

For example:

“Where’s the file for the Erickson account? I can’t find it.”

“It’s on your desktop,” Megan said.

“It’s not here,” he said.

“I don’t know what happened to it, Mr. James.”

Boring, boring, boring. I stopped reading it after the first line and I’m the one that wrote it. But what if we take those same lines and add physicality to it?

“Megan, where’s the file for the Erickson account? I can’t find it.”

She grimaced at the whine in his voice, but continued to twist back and forth in her chair and scroll through her news feed. “It’s on your desktop.”

He clicked the mouse several times. “It’s not here,” he said and slammed the mouse on his desk.

She jumped at the outburst but recovered and went over to check for him. As she searched through the folders, clicking on each one and ruling it out, she chewed on her bottom lip. The more files she checked, the more her eyebrows scrunched together and the redder his face got.

“I don’t know what happened to it, Mr. James.”

As you can see, the difference physicality makes is important. You couldn’t really tell what these characters were like in the first example, but there were several details easily picked up on in the second example that gave a much clearer view of their personalities. Mr. James appears to have a temper and Megan tends to be nervous around him.

The writer might already know this is how Megan and Mr. James are but not know how to add the physicality. The easy way out it is to tell instead of show, but even that would leave something to be desired. So what is the writer supposed to do?

A Face in the Crowd

In college my classmates and I were encouraged to practice our lines in front of a mirror. It was meant to help us learn how to express the emotions of the lines clearly even if the words themselves didn’t express it.

This is one way writers can help convey their characters emotions too. Sit in front of a mirror and say your character’s lines as if you are that character and watch how your face moves. Did you lift an eyebrow at one point? Did you purse your lips? Did you scrunch up your nose?How about shrugging your shoulders or tilting your head to one side?

These are all things that convey physicality and help make your readers feel the emotions your character experiences.

Your Body is a Wonderland

Physicality isn’t limited to facial expressions though. The entire body needs to be involved too. Even if your character isn’t aware of what his or her hands are doing, you need to be aware of it. How does your character walk? How does she sit? How does she stand? How does your character react when stressed?

Mirrors can be used in this way too. Grab a full length mirror and stand in front of it the way you normally do. Do you put your hands on your hips? Behind your back? Do you put all your weight on one leg? Do you cross your arms in front of your chest or put your hands in your pockets? Now, what do you do when you sit down?

These are all things that make up your physicality and things that should be taken into consideration when creating your characters. Using a full length mirror can help you determine what kinds of physical habits your character has in any emotional state. Habits like tapping his foot or picking at the hem of her shirt.

Once you’ve determined what your character’s body does during various emotional states, it will be easier for you to write them in a way that helps you show, not tell.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about how acting can help you block the action scenes in your book.

Do you act out your character’s lines or use a mirror to help you write?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *