Lean, Squint, Turn: The Importance of Physicality in WritingI can see it so clearly, her long, lean fingers gliding up and down the top of her leg and smoothing the fabric of her PJ pants over and over again. This was Mom’s signature gesture, the thing she did whenever we sat with coffee in the mornings and talked.  It signaled that she was thinking, that she was engaged, and maybe that she needed a little comfort, too.

I picked up the same habit, but I use my fingers to flip satin on my favorite blanket. A habit of soothing that I’ve had all my life.

I have another friend who rubs her lower belly when she’s pondering something, and my dad clips his fingernails when there’s a lull in conversation.

Each of these gestures is typical for them, and if I want to write these people as characters, then these small physical movements need to be part of how I describe them.  Physicality is a key component of all writing, but it’s one that’s really easy to forget. 

Out of the Mind and Into the Body

For many of us writers, it’s easy to stick to the heady stuff – to think about pacing and point of view, to consider the setting and work on our dialogue, to make sure our use of meter is accurate and our stanza breaks sharp. All those things are important, but sometimes, we get so focused on the “craft” that we forget the characters as living, breathing human beings (or animals if you are Richard Adams.)

When we’re talking about people, they need to be embodied. They need to lean in and make faces. Their eyes need to squint and their knees shake.  It’s not enough for us just to describe their physical features . . . we need to capture their movements, too.  Body movement is one of the key components in making a character three-dimensional.

Not only does physicality heighten characterization, it can do a great deal of work toward building your plot, deepening the tone, and enhancing the relationships in your work. For example, if two characters are in dialogue but they are turned away from each other with their arms crossed, then the reader knows that there is conflict or disconnection between them.  But if one of them says something and the other turns quickly to face her, well, then we know not only that what she said was important but also that the relationships has grown more connected for that moment.

Body movement can do a lot of the work of scene-building for you.

3 Ways to Study Body Movement

  1. Study your own body. How does your face react when someone tells you something heart-breaking? Joyful? What is your posture like when you’re sitting at dinner with someone you don’t like? Or when you see your child get off the school bus? Where in your body do you feel it when someone says something hateful to someone you love?  Pay attention to your own physical reactions, and you’ll find that you can write those reactions for others, too.
  2. Study the people you love. What does your partner do before she gets into the shower each day? How does your pastor walk when he comes down the aisle to begin the service? When your great-aunt Sylvia laughs hard, how does her body move?  Simply observing the people you know will expand your repertoire of physical movement for your work.
  3. Study film and TV. Actors must use their bodies to help portray emotion and relationships, so watching how they represent a feeling or connection can be really powerful. Study what facial expressions they give to show joy or hesitation.  Consider what their hands do when they are trying to convince someone of something. Watch how close two actors stand in a particularly intimate scene. A little time attending to the way actors move can be a great way to learn more . . . not to mention a great excuse to watch your favorite movie again.

It can be really easy to create a book, story, poem, or essay that is full of disembodied characters speaking and thinking. But that work gets boring very quickly.  Embody people in your words, and you’ll find that the work is richer, deeper, and more compelling for your reader.

If you’d like to read a great book that talks about physicality for the writer and in the work, check out Fruitflesh by Gayle Brandeis.

What ways do you incorporate physical movement in your work?  Any writers you know who does this particularly well?  Leave a comment to share.