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How to revise your characters' physical attributes

This is part 4 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Last time I talked about mannerisms, the “fingerprint of motion” of the character. Today, I’m going to talk about the working with the character’s actual fingerprint. Or more broadly, ways you can link the character’s physical body to everything else: beliefs, attitudes, fears, goals, and obstacles.

As with the earlier articles in this series, one of the goals is consistency. You can’t describe a character as blonde in chapter one but redhead in chapter seven unless you’ve also shown us a hair dye scene. I’ve covered techniques for achieving consistency earlier, so I won’t rehash those here. They work for this as well as for dialogue and mannerisms.

Going deeper, the goal is to sculpt a character’s body to serve the story’s ends. The characters you’ve put in your novel have their wants and desires, they have their quirks and foibles. If you’ve followed any of my past advice or your own good storytelling instincts, you’ll have found ways to link those things to your plot. But your character needs a body, too. Don’t just give them any random body. Take some time to think about what body best helps you link their desires and foibles to that plot.

After all, the body is the means by which the character does everything they ever do (with the possible exception of paranormal stories). The body is also the means through with the character experiences the entire world. After all, mind and body come in the same package, and the two do affect one another.

Bodies through time

Characters have history. So do their bodies. The two should be tightly linked. Consider your characters’ personality traits, and whether those fit with their bodies. Not just their bodies as they are now, but as they were in the past, too. From decade to decade, our bodies change in both major and minor ways. You can use that to strengthen the portrayal of personality traits.

For example, let’s say you have a character who is timid. Maybe this is an important part of the character’s arc; overcoming his fear of confrontation is central to the story, so you can’t change it without turning your story into something entirely different. But maybe you also need the character to be a total slab of beefcake. That’s bound to jar the reader. It’s a little odd to imagine a big buff dude who is timid. After all, who’s going to pick on him? Who’s going to look at him and say “I want to pick a fight with that guy.” Nobody. So what’s he got to be timid about?

Well, bodies change over time. Maybe he wasn’t always so big. Maybe he was a scrawny kid during his formative years, constantly teased, picked on, beat up, and given wedgies throughout grade school and high school. Maybe he didn’t really fill out and gain his adult stature until he was in college. His body changed, but by that point he had internalized that self-image of weakness, of being the victim. Timidity doesn’t clash with being big and strong, if you give it the right backstory.

Alternately, you might decide it was a mistake to go with a big beefy body. You may have had some reason for doing that initially, but as so often happens, the story took a different turn than you expected and now that choice doesn’t quite play out like you thought. No problem. Change the body. Leave him scrawny as an adult, too.

As you revise, ask yourself whether you have any surface-level clashes that readers might wonder about, ones you can fix with backstory. And don’t freak out if you find a clash. Yes, it’s something you have to fix, but in a good way: it’s a wonderful opportunity to create a mystery for the reader to wonder about, to hook them further into your story by making them curious about your characters. Make the reader wonder why the big beefy guy is so timid.

Bodies to enhance or create obstacles

We all know that a good story is driven by an ongoing series of obstacles characters must overcome. Take a look at the obstacles in your story, and ask yourself whether any of these can be enhanced by changing something about your character’s body. Similarly, look for places in your novel where the pace seems to slow down—the dreaded “sagging middle” syndrome—and ask whether you can create an obstacle by changing something about your character’s body.

If the answer is “yes,” then figure out whether you want to go big or go small with the change. On the big side, these are typically permanent conditions. Disabilities, congenital conditions, or major illnesses that you can work to the story’s advantage. This is a good time to brainstorm: what would happen if your character were in a wheelchair? What if the character were missing a thumb or an entire hand? What about achondroplastic dwarfism or maybe some kind of palsy? How about a joint disease, like rheumatoid arthritis? Or gout, which doesn’t change one’s appearance but which can be debilitatingly painful?

It can be easy to go over-the-top with permanent conditions and into the land of melodrama. Try not to do that. Adding a permanent physical ailment to a character shouldn’t be done lightly, by any stretch, because it means you will have to re-think a great many scenes in the book. You’ll have to re-evaluate whether the character can actually do literally everything he or she does in the novel. You also don’t want the condition to seem like a cheap trick to score pity points with the reader. Be careful and tasteful about it, and be absolutely sure to find a credible backstory for it. The upside is that the possibility for drama in ordinary scenes is greatly enhanced. For a character with rheumatoid arthritis, just replying to a piece of e-mail can be a big deal.

Going small means something temporary, usually a recoverable injury, but also a chronic condition that can come and go. For example, maybe your sagging middle includes a scene where your hero helps his bookie move into a new apartment as partial repayment of a gambling debt. In your first draft, maybe he does the job, the bookie lays off, and all is well. But what fun is that? It would, after all, be a pretty inopportune time for the character’s bad back to start acting up. Faced with the choice of hefting couches and recliner chairs for an afternoon or having the bookie’s goons break his kneecaps, he may well simply down a bunch of Tylenol and hope for the best.

Maybe he gets through the afternoon, and the bookie lays off like you need to have happen for the rest of the plot, but the hero really messes up his back. He ends up with an addiction to prescription painkillers just so he can go to work every day. Suddenly, the boring scene in the sagging middle becomes a tragic moment, leaving the hero with a problem that makes the entire rest of the plot more challenging (thus, more dramatic and less sagging) than before.


Now that you’ve finished the first draft of the novel, you know the character’s personality traits a lot better than you did at the beginning of the book. But the beginning of the book is probably where you picked the character’s body type. Revision is a perfect time to think about whether your original choice works like you thought it would, and whether a different choice could work even better.

Similarly, now that you’ve finished the first draft, you know the outer plot a whole lot better than you did when you started. Revision is the perfect time to look for issues there too, and ask whether you can revise your character’s physical body to help fix them.

< Back to part 3: revising physical attributes| Next: part 5, revising attitudes >

December 07, 2009 19:20 UTC

Tags: character, revision, body type, backstory, disability, injury, illness

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