Some of you may know – and probably I put it on my About page (*makes note to go check and update the About page*) – that I am a recovering actor. My undergrad was in theatre. Here. Have a picture of my teenage self as a Vietnam era nurse.
I’m the one between one girl’s butt and one girl’s crotch looking contemplative (appropriate).
Aaaaaaaaaanyway. My time as an actor gave me a lot of experience about holding your body in space. Building on my theme of taking obvious ideas and trying to explore the nuances, today we’re going to look at how your character holds themselves and how that affects them. And if you take away some lessons to apply to your own life, awesome.
Most of us probably know that when you feel a certain way, your body will shape itself to match that feeling. Like puffing up like an alpha male when you need to be aggressive. Shrinking into yourself when you want to disappear. These things can happen automatically. You can use them, however, to get yourself to feel those things. So whether you have a character that feels sometime and the body follows or needs to feel something and therefore puts their body in that feeling’s shape, it’s a good idea to have sense of how bodies do that. I’m going to talk about two things today: 1. extroversion v. introversion of the body; and 2. grammar of the feet.
Extroversion versus Introversion
At their simplest, extroversion is making the body bigger than it is and introversion is making the body smaller than it is. Extroversion sends a message of physical strength, power, and aggression. Introversion sends a message of physical weakness, meekness, and disengagement. Extroversion of the body is stereotypically male; introversion stereotypically female. Note that I’m not trying to use judgment words, but the adjectives associated with these come with culturally contingent meanings that you should be aware of as you write the physicality of your characters.
In these simple forms, all points of the body turn outward (extroversion) or inward (introversion). For the former, chest puffs out, shoulders back, head held high on the top of the spine, hips open, feet possibly turned slightly out but not so much as to suggest ballet (god forbid). The body is open. Arms are at the sides or open wide. The goal is to take up space like a guy sitting next to a woman on a subway. (Side note: It’s not that big, dude. Close your legs.)
For the latter, the feet turn slightly in, the hips are drawn in and tighter, the torso contracts in to hunch the spine a little, the head looks down, and the shoulders hunch in. The body is closed. Arms may cross in front. It’s a protective stance that closes people off from it. Think of the demure lady trying to keep the eager “gentleman’s” advances away while also maintaining the patriarchal status quo (i.e. no yelling at him to go fuck himself cause you’re not gonna).
As I said above, these have culturally contingent meanings. Those meanings change depending on what bodies are doing them. Extroversion on a woman means different things than on a man. Extroversion on a black body is different than on brown body, than on a white body. Different for a fat body than a chubby body than an average body than a slim body.
The form your characters carry their bodies in will communicate to the audience something of what they feel, and the shape they put their bodies in when confronted with an event will tell your audience something about how they react to situations. In the face of adversity, do they puff up or turn in? In the face of accolades, same question.
Grammar of the Feet
The below discussion was born from my training in undergrad in the Suzuki acting method, which focuses on the body and particularly the feet. The feet are taken for granted. For many of us, they carry us through the day, balancing a bunch of weight over a network of delicate bones, and only moderately complain by the end of the day.How you stand on your feet affects how you behave. Actually, let’s make this broader and hopefully less ableist, especially at this general level. How you stand on your base affects how you behave. Think about whatever base your character has, how they are connected to that base and then to the earth. These connections and how they support us affect our characters.
A person that is standing on the balls of their feet (think high heels) or sitting on the edge of their chair has a different experience of an event than a person standing fully on both of their feet or sitting supported back in a chair. While I need to explore myself the grammar of other bases, for me the feet and their position are less about communication to others, unlike the prior section, and more are an expression and communication to the internal self. Not to say there is no outward communication, but that it is more muted.
Our characters will have a natural way they distribute their weight on whatever their base is. The grammar of this can, especially when used with the prior physicality, communicate subtle things to the reader about them. Do you have an alpha male that is not comfortable in that role? Perhaps he stands on the insides of his feet, throwing his balance into just a little bit of risk and introverting his legs slightly. How about a woman trying to make it a man’s world but without drawing male ire? She maybe wears patriarchy approved heels but stands on them as if her feet were fully planted on the ground. What about a character in a wheelchair dealing with an unfair high school administration? She rocks that teenager lean onto one of her hips to let him know she is both too cool for him and way uninterested in what he has to say.
Using the Tools
These are the basics. Now, let’s play with it. –
The best way to understand how the body expresses and feeds back emotions is to explore it in your own body. So today’s post includes some suggested homework.
Take an hour and explore the different ways you can hold your body and the different ways you can connect to your base. Note how you feel. Note how it makes you look (if you have a mirror handy). Take these to the extreme and then pull them back and make them small. Try them out in your daily life. What changes? What do you notice? Take another hour and get some writer / artist friends together and explore together. What do they see in your body shapes? What do you see in theirs? What are you all communicating to each other without words. Go explore and then come back here and share your experiences in the comments.
And just to leave you with one very practical (non-writer) use for all of this: if you are ever in a situation where you need to appear attentive but just are not feeling it, throw your balance off just slightly – enough to make your body work but not enough to be noticeable – you will look interested and no one will be the wiser. Except for people like me who look for that sort of thing (I promise I won’t tell).