Using Your Killer Head Cold For Character Insight

coldLast weekend, I was moping around my kitchen. The whole house seemed dreary and disorganized, with unopened mail on the table and dishes in the sink. But even though I knew they were things that needed to be done, my arms felt heavy. My head felt full. A fog descended and it was all I could do not to curl up under a blanket and go to sleep. And that’s when I had a major epiphany: hey, it’s kinda hard to get things done when you physically aren’t feeling good.

Fighting off a more robust than average head cold for several weeks had sapped my ability to do anything productive. Which, in turn, made every day tasks seem even more daunting. In this cycle, physical and emotional feeling echo and amplify each other.

When exploring a character’s inner life, it’s easy to forget that the character is necessarily inhabiting a physical form. The condition of their body will influence how they experience the world. Is your character generally in good or bad health? Is he active? When was the last time your character had a good night’s sleep?

The kinds of questions can be a fruitful prompt, inviting you to carefully examine the character’s environment and his responses to it. Maybe he isn’t sleeping well because he’s anxious, or there’s an annoying noise outside his window, or he can’t stand another night in close proximity to his wife. How does he feel the next morning? How much coffee does he drink? Does he have a headache? Feel jittery or irritable? Grounding the character in physical feeling can bring realism to his interactions.

Also, consider how other characters might react to your character’s physical presentation. If your character is feeling bad, is she trying to hide it? Or is she the kind who would tell everybody about how rotten she feels? How do other characters respond to this.

Alternatively, you can use physicality to show how the character changes over the course of the novel. Perhaps an old injury that acts up as the character faces mounting stress, or a person whose comforting presence seems to alleviate pain.

The beauty of this is that, as owners of physical bodies, all of us have a lifetime of experience on which to draw. You already know how it feels to be sore or sick or energized or peaceful. Drawing on the sensations that already exist within your own body can provide a wealth of character insights.

So, the next time you spend most of the day on the couch, it’s not just a cold — it’s research.

1 comment

  1. Gerald B Whelan

    Excellent point, Amber, & good for me to remember, with my tendency to forget to put my characters in a scene, or to give them anything but a brain. Yeah, the senses. All five of them, Muy importantes. It would be fun to come up with a list of novels and short stories where the protagonist’s physical characteristics, problems, limitations are important narrative motors. At the moment I’m blanking on them, except for the ailing Rabbit. Oh yeah, and speaking of rabbits, how about Alice? Obviously I need some help here. Good piece!

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