My body has known pain. Two torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Three knee surgeries. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Three childbirths. Graves Disease. Concussions. Sinus surgery. Trigeminal neuralgia. Four years of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. One year of high-dose antibiotic treatment. Five root canals. Pneumonias. Hemochromatosis. Regular phlebotomy.
Constant corporal bombardment and yet, for years, every time I met with my writing pal, novelist Eliza Factor, she’d wisely say of my early drafts, “Don’t forget the body. You’re all in the head.”
I’d stare at the pages and then look at my stomach—always my stomach—and wonder what the hell she meant when she said to write from the body. It wasn’t as simple as adding an elbow to the paragraph or describing how a character moved. It was much deeper.
Over time, I realized I needed to get inside my character and wear her around. Last year, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey hosted an exhibit that allowed visitors to don a robotic suit simulating the experience of being elderly: goggles to impair vision, acoustic effects to dull hearing, devices to stymie movement. If only there were a character showroom where writers could try on everything from teenage girl with first menstrual cramps to forty-year-old man with hair loss and bipolar disease.
Even if these suits don’t exist, we can create them in our mind’s eye through research, experience, and empathy. We can ask ourselves questions, such as what are my character’s stomach juices doing? Does his brain turn letters backwards? Where does she hurt? Does anxiety gallop in her chest? The combination of things happening in my body is specific and unique, as is the combination in yours. I now try to make my characters’ bodies specific as well.
I also consider my own motivations for creating this specific body because I want to avoid blinding a character or amputating her leg for purely symbolic purposes. Giving a character a disability for the sake of metaphor or to advance a theme not only smacks of ableism, but also makes a character less believable, less true.
Once I have located the body and begun to weave it into my writing, that same body usually leads me more organically into my character’s soul. I start asking how having this particular physical experience impacts my character’s reactions, perspective, objectives, fortitude, prejudices, and understanding of others.
It was not until I gave the main character of my draft-novel a cold that I finally got to know her. I could better understand her vulnerabilities, desires, and failings when she was full of phlegm. She had put up guards around herself; once she was blowing her nose, these guards fell away. Soon she was crying in front of strangers, letting the grief out of her that had been her central obstacle without my even realizing it. As Virginia Woolf writes in her strange and wonderful essay, “On Being Ill,” “What wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view.”
To give another example, I’ve been struggling for months with a sexist jerk of a character. He’s my story’s villain, but I knew I had to humanize him. As soon as I gave him migraines, constipation from his pain meds, and a child struggling with learning disabilities, he became a stronger character. He was more nuanced and easier to write. I developed a tenderness for him that deepened with each draft until I felt such empathy for him, for the things that had brought him to his objectionable viewpoint, that he is now one of my favorite characters.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that one inflict physical pain or disease on every character. We can write positively from the body as well. We can explore the energy or attitude our character brings to a situation after just having had great sex or an exhilarating run or a cup of chamomile tea. Writing from the body also entails being aware of the privileges and advantages healthy characters have, of how wellness shapes who they are. And, even if a character does have corporeal problems, her issues need not be splattered across a bloody page. They need not be mentioned at all. Merely knowing about them, having walked in the simulator suit, will permit richer characterization and subtext. Still, sometimes we need to shatter our characters to build them. Here’s the hammer; have at it.
Read Maureen's story "Chorionic Villus Sampling with the Virgin Mary."
Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine and a Nonfiction Reader at Indianola Review. Her work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb,(b)OINK, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Timberline Review, and Wigleaf. Find her on Twitter@MaureenLangloss or at maureenlangloss.com.