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How Physical Traits Influence Character

Confession: I forgot what day today was. Literally forgot it was Thursday; thought it was Wednesday and I’d have another day to write a blog post. And since I spend the bulk of Thursday night (and Wednesday morning) at the animal shelter, I didn’t have much time to think of fresh content. Luckily, I found this intriguing little self-reflective post from 2009 when I was undergoing a significant physical problem that challenged my identity and had me wondering how a character’s physical appearance impacts their emotional life.

It’s awfully cute and a little bit painful. My dad was still alive back then; my son wasn’t even conceived! Life was simpler, and I was honestly a different person with very different priorities and goals. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself so many, many things…

Many of you know that I had shoulder surgery last January [2009] to repair a ring of detached cartilage and muscle, a volleyball-induced mess that had been keeping me from all of my favorite hobbies and a chunk of my duties as a zookeeper. Though I didn’t know the extent of the injury before the surgery, I’d hoped the surgeon would provide a relatively quick fix—the most likely procedure would require a three-month healing period plus another six to nine months of rehabilitation. It didn’t sound too bad. I felt obligated to quit zookeeping, though, just before the surgery. I couldn’t see a way around it, and besides, wouldn’t it be nice to spend the year of recovery writing?

WRONG. Wrong, wrong, stupid and wrong. It’s been awful, and though I’m much better than I was in, say, mid-July, I’m still worse than I was before the surgery (yeah, you read that right). My bicep burns as I sit here typing. I can’t go back to zookeeping. I can’t play volleyball. I can’t even lift my 3-year-old nephew into a swing.

It sucks, and it’s bothering more than I think it should.

See, I’ve always been a physically strong person, able to hold or lift more weight than could other women I knew. I was no bodybuilder, but I was naturally strong, whether I worked at it or or not. I thought it was part of who I was as a human, part of my intrinsic self. I probably took it for granted, and ironically, that was my downfall, for the doctors tell me that if I’d made an effort to keep my shoulder muscles strong, I might not have injured it in the first place. (Did someone just whisper “hubris”?)

Now, I can’t even do the normal things that everyone else can do. I see it at the zoo: I can’t hold a twenty-five-pound giant rabbit in one arm. I can’t carry two penguins at once. I can’t help load the Indian python into the van. I can’t scrub the floor. And at home: I can’t carry an armful of sticks into the backyard. I can’t move furniture by myself. I can’t run a power drill. I can’t do a simple push-up, to say nothing of a tricep dip or bicep curls.

I am a pale, flabby, unremarkable imitation of my former self, and I hardly know who I am anymore.

People who didn’t know me two years ago don’t know that I used to be strong, and I get this weird, childish urge to tell them how things used to be. But I don’t—or at least I try really hard not to—and this effort to shut up has made me wonder why it matters so much to me that people understand that I’m only temporarily weak. I mean, I know humans aren’t strong forever. I know that old age would have taken my strength away eventually. I know I should never have allowed myself to place so much stock in something so fleeting. But it’s clear now that however unwise it was for me to let it happen, my self-image was based on my physical strength. Now that it’s gone, I feel bereft, undefined, like I’m not entirely myself.

What remains after the thing you believe is the foundation of your self turns out to be nothing more than a construct of youth and arrogance?

What’s left? Well, after much thought, I’ve decided that I’m still here, and maybe I’m stronger than I was before that last volleyball swing. Maybe I’m a better person now that I’m not relying upon external character traits to tell me what I’m worth. For as much as I enjoyed and was comforted by my physical strength, it wasn’t the best of me. It didn’t help me to take in foster cats. It didn’t help me make friends when I moved to a new town. And it surely wasn’t the thing that kept my butt in the chair and my brain connected to my stories as I pecked out my first two novels.

My physical self isn’t my internal self, as connected and difficult to disengage as they may seem.

And that, my fellow romance writing friends, is where this little confessional begins to apply to our craft. This self-reflection has me thinking about myself abstractly, like I’m some disillusioned character in one of my books. (I think it’s a little easier to take the analysis when I remove myself from my self for a bit.)

As writers, we create heroes and heroines with well-rounded sets of characteristics, both tangible and intangible. We know their hair color, their height, their eye color. Shoe size, too.

But that checklist of physical qualities merely describes how they look; it doesn’t define who they are.

Certainly, a character may think of herself in physical terms (as I clearly have). Perhaps it’s important to your heroine that she has curly red hair. Perhaps she acts in accordance with how people with curly red hair are reputed to act. But would she be a different person without that hair? If she lost it through chemotherapy, perhaps, or merely by the natural thinning and graying of age, would her nature change? Would she see herself in the mirror as a different woman? Would some subtler self emerge, or would she remain as she always was, as the redhead within? Does it turn out that the hair give her confidence to be bold, or was it really nothing more than hair to her? Would she have been the same women if she’d been born a brunette?

I really don’t know, because I don’t know your heroine.

But you must. You must understand how your character’s physical appearance impacts her emotional world, whether sensible or not.

After all, people aren’t very sensible, and while I know that fiction isn’t reality, I think that this often unspoken balance between internal and external selves is a mine worth exploring in our novels.

Try this exercise: pick your character’s most defining physical trait, whether positive or negative—hair, height, weight, whatever. Let them have it for a while, let them grow accustomed to it, and then rip it from them. See what happens. See if they change. I’d wager that you’ll learn something about the guts of your characters if you do.

And a question for your comments….do you have a physical trait that you think defines you? How would you feel if you lost it?

8 responses to “How Physical Traits Influence Character”

  1. I love this post because how we see the things we feel we can’t change about ourselves can have such a powerful impact on character.

    For me, my most defining physical traits tend to be the things I lack – my terrible eyesight, my bad knees. Like my complete inability to tell my left from my right, I have to compensate for them, but I’m weirdly protective of them. I don’t know that I will ever get lasik. I love being able to take off my glasses and let the world blur into itself. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it feels important to my personality in some way – not that I can’t do something, but that I embrace my deficiencies with enthusiasm. Does that make sense? Of course, if I lost those deficiencies, I’m sure I would have others that I could embrace! There are plenty to go around. 😉

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    • I used to have terrible vision, but I got Lasik a few years ago. Of course it’s convenient to be able to see most things without glasses, but I really do miss the way I used to read, as you do still: eyes four inches from the text, everything else blurred to extinction. I can’t really see anything that’s closer than maybe eight inches from my face anymore, which is actually pretty irritating!

      I think it’s interesting how we become a collection of stories. Like, it’s probably somewhat intrinsic to your personality that you can’t see, can’t tell your left from your right, and have bad knees. I can already form a character from those details — wouldn’t be “you,” but that’s the start of a character sketch. There’s no doubt that pairing you with an active, outdoorsy type who wants to take you on challenging multi-day wilderness hikes would produce conflict!

      So what if that character got Lasik? Or met a great physical therapist who could rehab her knees? Or got tattoos to label her hands with “right” and “left”? 😉 Could she suddenly find herself enjoying long hikes? Maybe making it work with that outdoorsy type? Maybe becoming a rather different sort of person altogether?

      I think our personalities are more transmutable than we imagine them to be.

      Our physical selves shape what choices we can make, but once we begin to realize how we might alter our physical selves (or seek out alternatives to traditional methods of movement), our worldview can change right along with our bodies.

      I never thought I’d enjoy a trip to the beach — contact lenses + ocean water = unhappy Jamie. But now? Take me to your coastline! Just don’t forget the sunscreen…

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      • It’s funny that you mention both hiking and the beach because I grew up on the beach – blind in the water and not caring. And I love long hikes – even if I wear heavy braces on my knees. But another character with those traits could definitely let them stop her from enjoying those things. Fascinating how character is revealed in the way we react to abilities and changes.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        Jamie, our own physical traits can snarl us up a bit, can’t they? I’m too nearsighted for Lasik, and I no longer wear contacts, so I understand your beach issues. I can’t remember the last time I went swimming because I’m utterly dependent upon my glasses. Imagine my glee when I was diagnosed with cataracts the last time I went to see the eye doctor! This means that in approximately five years, I’ll be able to have the cataracts removed, and get prescription lenses implanted. *happy dance!!!* Being able to see when I open my eyes will be my norm! I’ll be able to wear drugstore readers instead of spending a grand on glasses every couple of years! I’ll be able to snorkel and swim! Yippee!

        Just don’t get me started on the weight I’ve gained since college, when I was a competitive gymnast… /sigh/ Just about every gymnast I know has body image issues of some kind or another…

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  2. jbrayweber says:

    Love, love this post, Jamie! From both a writer’s perspective and an aging woman who still thinks/acts like a twenty-something with a sailor’s mouth.
    My own deficiencies, I don’t know… I’m torn. Like my weight. I work out, I jog, and I don’t junk food. Still, I battle weight. It’s frustrating and it’s an insecurity I wish I didn’t have. Thanks, society. Pffth!
    I battle depression, too, and often wonder what it would be like if I didn’t see the world the way I do. I know that’s not a physical trait, but it is a part of me that has only recently begun to keep me doing things I used to enjoy. Of course, that’s probably also tied to the age thing. Haha! But the point is that physical limitations can and do affect us on deeper levels. Sometimes we change on the inside, sometimes we don’t.

    Seriously great post.

    Jenn!

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  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    Fabulous post, Jamie!! And not just because you unironically complain “I can’t carry two penguins at once.” (Or because you confess to wanting strangers to understand that you USED to be stronger.)

    I’ve lived long enough that I’m having to re-jigger my identity around all sorts of physical aspects of self I used to take for granted–like my once-ridiculously-thick (and now thinning) hair, and my strength (badly compromised by all-over arthritis) and my runner’s body (ha ha ha ha ha….we won’t even talk about how different my shape and muscle tone and oxygen capacity is from when I was in my 20s). But, yes, we LIVE in our bodies, and even small changes and losses can throw us for a huge loop. Sudden large losses…well, that’s the stuff of which conflict and self-realization are made.

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  4. Rita Henuber says:

    Oooooooooo. YES! Thank you for this post. It can be used in the chatacter arc and be one of a characters misguided beliefs about themselves.

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  5. Liz Talley says:

    Great re-post, Jamie, and something to consider. Sometimes I’m so busy getting to story and action I forget how important it is to go internal into character. Not just their feelings but how things like physical issues, hell, a hang nail, can influence the scene.

    Thanks 🙂

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