Friday, July 9

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, July 09, 2010 14 comments
How do your characters feel in their own skin? Self-conscious? Cocky? Healthy? Despairing? Blissfully carefree?

Hang out at a pool for any length of time, and you'll soon notice a wide variety of embodied responses to being nearly naked in public. The pool is a great venue to observe how body image plays out in behavior. Some love to flaunt their assets (or their perception thereof). Others cringe and hide. Some step out tentatively and watch always for reactions. Others are too distracted to care how they look. Some drag their bodies around as if wearing flesh were a tiresome ordeal. Others joyfully skip from here to there, glad to be alive. Some relish the cool water. Others prefer baking in the sun or ducking into the shade to read.

Here's an exercise for thinking through character body image: Imagine your character at the pool. How does she behave? What sort of swimsuit does he choose? How readily does she let herself been seen, and by whom? Whose attention does he hope to win? Who does she feel judges her?

Would this exercise help your characterization? What did you learn from it?
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  1. Oh man, I love this exercise, for reasons I can't disclose about my MC :). Thanks, Laurel!

  2. Laurel, you totally got inside my head today. I was sitting at the pool with my kids not 20 minutes ago and thought very similar things.

    I was distracted by all the body types and what words I would use to describe them. The lifeguards took up more minutes than I should admit to. Especially the ripped one with tattoos on each shoulder. I was trying to figure out what the tattoo was. Thank heavens for dark sunglasses. No one knows for certain when you are totally staring at people.


  3. My character couldn't go to the pool in the daytime because he'd kind of spontaneously combust in the sunlight. Otherwise, he's pretty lean and buff and wouldn't care about people seeing him in a bathing suit.

  4. What a great way to think about your characters.

  5. Love this idea - but my characters are in Steampunk England and would probably just kinda stare at it! :)

  6. My characters would very quickly avert their eyes and find someplace else to be.

    The whole "beach attitude" thing is funny, though, because it depends a lot on where you live and how often you wear a swimsuit in public. I was always very self-conscious about how I looked... until I moved to New Jersey. Now we are at the beach or pool all the time, and even though I am much heavier and flabbier now than I ever was before (and older, too) I just don't care how I look because EVERYONE is there to swim and enjoy the sunshine. No one actually looks at other people's bodies (except maybe the teenagers). We're just there to have fun.

    My sister came to visit and was worried about how she looked. I told her not to worry, and as we were coming home she said, "You're right, everybody does just let it all hang out!" But in Ohio, it would be very different.

  7. I love watching people! I could picture every one you mentioned. I think the more angles we use to flesh out our characters the better.

  8. JEM: have fun with it!

    Charity: LOL--watching the buff lifeguard! Last summer I was always watching the herds of teens and seeing how they acted and interacted. Not many teens group joined our pool this year. Now I'm getting a kick out of watching the grandparent-aged folks (in WIP-2 my MC has to take her grandfather to therapeutic water aerobics all summer).

    Simon: I wonder if swimming is something your MC would miss in his altered state. Just an idea for making the transformation more poignant.

    Holly: In YA especially, coming to terms with one's changing body is a common trope. Poolside is a fun place to research.

  9. Jemi: Victorians and near-nakedness...the closest they'd get is at the seaside in their modest swimming costumes! Perhaps a different venue where one feels on display (a formal ball?) would be more telling for your milieu.

    Christine: That's a very interesting observation--that body consciousness is somewhat regional. I imagine the California beaches are quite different from the Jersey shore (with its "it is what it is" body image culture).

    Vicki: the longer I've been at this task of writing, the more my writer's brain is on alert everywhere I go. Ideas are everywhere.

  10. What a great exercise, Laurel. I'll have to use this on the new ms. Thanks!

  11. I have a pool scene (and its sexy) in my second novel that says a lot about both my MC's.

    But over the weekend I actually attended a pool party, and you're absolutely right. Getting nearly naked brings out a whole different personality in some people you know. An excellent character study exercise.


  12. It's a good way to visualise what personalities characters have. I can see mine now, heehee. Interesting to think about - thanks!

  13. This is a GREAT exercise. I'm going to journal about it today. Thanks!

  14. Victoria: glad it was timely and useful.

    Donna: I've read far too much fiction in which the MC doesn't seem to HAVE a body, you know what I mean? Have fun with your steamy pool scene!

    Jayne: As Donna mentioned, a character who is a shark in the board room might be a cowering minnow at the pool. The importance of body image in some venues shows another side of a character's personality--exploring that can be a way to round out an otherwise flat character.

    Mary: Have fun! Hope it proves profitable.