Sarah Tomp is the author of MY BEST EVERYTHING. She has a MFA in writing for children and young adults from VCFA and teaches writing for UCSD-Extension. @swtomp

Maybe it’s my stage of life, or maybe it’s working in middle schools, or maybe it’s a matter of diversity, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but I’ve been thinking about bodies. (However, this particular post will stay G-rated, family friendly.)

pirate-7In my writing I’ve never been interested in descriptions of my characters’ physical being. For me what matters, and what I am most interested in, is their inner workings of emotions and thoughts. The outside shell simply is a vessel to hold the stuff that matters. And yet, that outer shell is what others react to. It’s our most reliable way read someone else’s emotions. Sometimes we get those reading wrong, but other times it’s a fairly accurate assessment.

We often make assumptions based on those physical forms – which is where things can get slippery. That’s where a lot of messages get mixed or misinterpreted.

pirate-6But we also make choices as to how we project our inner selves. Clothes, accessories, hair styles, all work together to create a visual signpost and introduction. Sometimes we have more control over these external clues than others. We can’t change our gender or race or body type, and sometimes we have to wear something we’d rather avoid (why hello, hospital gowns and fast-food uniforms!) – but other times we choose what people see first. (And yet… who is that masked man – or is it a woman? Superhero or bandit?)

The physical world of your character can tap into the physical experience of your reader. This is why sensory details add richness to our writing. Consider your character’s physical body and explore ways to make it more personal. Change is one way to explore and examine physicality.

  • Give your character a physical injury – temporary or permanent.
  • Have his/her weight change dramatically.
  • Put her/him in different kinds of weather.
  • Force him/her to wear something uncomfortable.

The physical body and circumstance can be a way to start a story, too. Get your own body involved and create an image to represent a character. One rough and simple physical brainstorming exercise utilizes doodling or sketching. Start with a simple circle – the head as a vessel to hold all the inner workings, then accessorize. Here I’ve gone with two basic articles – an eye patch, which conjures the idea of a pirate, and a crown, which usually means royalty – and then mixed them a bit.

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If you create your own physical images and cues of the external world – you might be surprised where your mind takes you. I think some of the most satisfying stories are the ones that start with the expected, then change it up! Surprise and curiosity goes a long way in engaging a reader. This can create more poignancy, humor, or intensity.

Let’s get physical!

~Sarah Tomp