The Geography of Your Characters

“You don’t need to wait for inspiration to write. It’s easier to be inspired while writing that while not writing…” — Josip Novakovich, Fiction Writer’s Workshop
I was looking for an exercise for my writing group and came across one in Brian Kitely’s book, 3 a.m. Epiphany.  He suggested describing two or more people who are in the same place, aware of one another, and have no clothes on. Kitely says this is a variation of an exercise Josop Novakonvich uses in his book, Writing Fiction Step by Step.
I thought it was a great idea, so that’s what my writing group will do for our next meeting. (You might want to try this yourself!)  But I realized how little I knew about Novakonvich, so I started to explore the Internet to see what more I could learn about him.
I found Writing Fiction Step by Step on Google, and lucky for me, I could click on and read his chapter on characters. (So can you!)  I thought I would look for the section about describing a character without clothes—because according to Novakonvich, by “describing bodies, you can convey the characters’ minds in a fresh way.” But before I found that section, I came across another one that really struck me about what it says about how we describe our characters.  “Tall, dark, and handsome,” just doesn’t cut it, he says.  Here’s what does:
Show the geography of passion reflected in a person’s body.  That’s what you aim to do, like a landscaper approaching a forest on a mountain slope.  You look for the direction the trees take in weathering the storms, noting if their branches still bend even when the winds have passed and how the roots grasp and hug rocks like stringy arms and fingers.  You look for how the body bends, with desire, pain; you look for tremor in the hand, thickening in the knuckles. . . . for serrated muscles on the jaws, for a glitter of pride in the eyes under thick eyelashes, for a seductive gloss on the round curve of a lower lip. (26-27)
That’s our goal, to see what is beyond the superficial descriptions of a person – their hair, their height, the color of their eyes.  What topography of the face, what lilt of the body, what easily overlooked habit can you provide your characters that gives your readers a much deeper understanding of who he or she is?
How do you do this? Be present in the scene.  Close your eyes: Visualize your character; breathe in how he smells; watch her walk and move through the scene; notice the reaction on his face and in his body; feel her in you and think about how your body reacts as well.  Capture those feelings, those individual mannerism and idiosyncrasies.
Check out his entire chapter on characters.  In it, he offers a number of exercises that suggest ways to get to know your characters better.
Come back on Friday when I look more about how nakedness helps our writing – really!

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