Recently, I read a thought-provoking and helpful article on Writer’s Digest on using physicality to bring your characters to life. There’s some great advice here. Incorporating different senses and the physical signs of emotion can help immerse the reader in the setting, even in the mind of the protagonist. Being grounded in the story world makes it feel that much more real – and exciting – as a reader.
I think this can be especially important in historical fiction. The genre brings its own unique challenge of trying to recreate a time long past, and sometimes, as a writer, it feels like grasping at echoes. Of course, one of the joys of historical fiction – both as a reader and writer – is that once the details and story click into place, you do slip into another world entirely. I love the way being drawn into a historical world feels like new, uncharted territory, but history has left just enough imprints on the present for it to feel a little bit familiar. You might know the bare bones of the time period, but not what happens to the protagonist, or maybe you find comforting kernels of ‘sameness’ in the characters. People haven’t changed so much, really. Three hundred years ago, they still wanted to find love, or worried about their children, or struggled under the weight of family pressures.
Trying to capture the sounds and textures and the smells of the story’s setting bring it to life. For me, while I’m writing, trying to show those things end up helping me connect more strongly to the world, help me to better polish it for the reader. It makes the setting more vivid, so a reader can easily imagine the acrid black smoke from the burning Réveillon wallpaper factory, or airy softness of one of Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns, or picture the scum of half-congealed blood tarnishing the Tuileries after it was violently mobbed, to use examples from my novel The Wardrobe Mistress.
That last one was a little dark. Sensory depictions can be delightful, too, especially if they’re food related. I still think fondly of the way Crystal King’s description of kitchens and food in her Roman historical novel Feast of Sorrow made me clearly imagine I could smell the mouth-watering aromas of Parthian chicken or the tang of mustard beets. Sounds and music can pull readers into the world, too. I can still remember the rebellious thrum of music in the Prohibition ‘juice joints’ that Bonnie (of Clyde and Bonnie fame) frequented in Jenni Walsh’s novel Becoming Bonnie.
A story or character can also be deepened by plot, as the Writer’s Digest article that sparked this whole post suggests. The article mentions a Stephen King novel where the narrator is diagnosed with cancer. Another example I can think of that I particularly enjoyed is Julia Heaberlin’s novel Lie Still, where the protagonist is heavily pregnant throughout the story. It added an extra layer of tension. As danger escalated all around her, I feared not only for her, but for her soon-to-be-born child.
Habitual gestures or nervous tics can strengthen characterization, too. Outlander fans know that Jamie Fraser often taps his two stiff fingers (from being broken) against his thigh when thinking. In Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, her character Eve struggles with a stammer, which sometimes intensifies during moments of high stress. While reading, it makes you ache with sympathy for her – especially because the high stakes WWI environment makes everything extra scary and intense.
What physical description or sensory element has really stood out to you in a book? Please share!