Lately, I’ve been focusing on an aspect of character development in my own work that I’ve noticed in stories that catch my attention, especially in flash fiction: revealing character through embodied movement.[1]  A character’s lifelike qualities emerge vividly out of how she occupies the narrative space. The brevity and compression of flash allows writers to experiment with form and structure with few constraints. In respect to embodied movement, as with any aspect of fiction, the writing and the words carry more freight. One of the more memorable examples is Ron Carlson’s “The Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” The whole piece is a wonderful work of characterization, yearning, emotion, and movement in a confined space:

He worked one dress shoe off with the other, and then held it on a toe as long as he could. The air cooled his arch perfectly, and he thought that: perfect. Evaporation was such a stunning feature of life on earth. Water rises into the air. Now he opened his mouth and then a little wider than was comfortable. [2]

Another is Kathy Fish’s lovely “Tenderoni” from Smokelong Quarterly, where a young woman watches her boyfriend figure out how to move a dead kitten off the road:

My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade which has probably been cancelled anyway. Ahead, Mark’s skinny calves pump, his day glo rain poncho flaps behind him like a flag. He stops and gets off the bike and I catch up to him.

“Oh, damn,” I say. “A kitty.”

“It looks sort of lumpy,” he says. There’s a drop of rain holding on to the tip of his nose and steam rising from his shoulders. “We should move it.”[3]

We know nothing about this couples’ ages, not much about how they look, or exactly where they are. It’s raining, they want to see a parade, they ride bicycles. One likes to smoke, one wears glasses. They are tender with one another. Readers feel like they share something intimate and significant with these people. Most of what we learn about them is from how they move and act and in what they say to one another.

Characters move through space and display physical characteristics, emotional expressions, and psychological states. They also convey their intellect, sexuality, humor, mood, opinions, trauma, and the status of their relationships. How a character conducts herself in the story tells us more than a description. We typically take advantage of dialogue as an opportunity for subtext, but movement can enrich characterization without having to rely on explication. When we show how a character emotes, for example, the disparity between their inner lives and their exterior responses contribute to tension and conflict. Nancy Stohlman in The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories cleverly borrows most everything the story needs with a one-word title, “Samson” and writes twenty-one more words of precise movement and dialogue:

“Don’t worry, we’ll both do it,” Delilah said, reaching for the hair clippers on the counter next to the lice shampoo.” [4]

How a character or reader changes and transforms over time in the narrative space has something to do with embodiment and movement, even if there is little to no embodiment and/or restricted movement. They are enabled to act in some way. A character’s movement also influences how time dilates and constricts, speeds up and slows down. This is how character movement can regulate pacing and momentum.

In “Abbreviated Glossary” Gay Degani uses concise, stark sentences to convey an emotionally charged story in 150 words that takes place over eight months:

Pact:

His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.

Hope:

My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.[5]

Amelia Gray in “House Heart” tells the story of how a couple lures a woman to their home and traps her in the ductwork. For one woman, her whole world becomes the visible interior of the house and how she dwells in it with her husband and this new, determined presence. For another woman, her space is confined to the interior of a house and the spaces she creates:

We licked each other’s faces, listening to the girl above us. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in he main passage, but that in the smaller lines, she would have to slide on her belly, arms outstretched, pulling herself forward.[6]

Eventually, everyone’s focus narrows to the interior where violations of hospitality play out.

Character development through movement is another way for our characters to gain more presence, mass, and substance. A young, recently injured gymnast is going to move very differently than his older brother who is a former heavyweight class wrestler and makes glass for a living. There are also characters we cannot help but remember always, not so much for the way they look but for their presence and how they bear themselves in a story.

 

[1] Bradley, April. First published as “Character Development & Movement.” Fiction Flash Fiction Chronicles. July 3, 2015. http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/character-development-movement-in-fiction/
[2] Carlson, Robert. “Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas & Robert Shapard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 62-63.
[3] Fish, Kathy. “Tenderoni.” Smokelong Quarterly. Issue 28. October 2, 2008 Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.smokelong.com/flash/kathyfish22.asp
[4] Stohlman, Nancy. “Samson.” The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Magill SA, Australia: A Pure Slush Book, 2014, 86.
[5] Degani, Gay. “Abbreviated Glossary.” Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century. Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.melusine21cent.com/mag/node/251
[6] Gray, Amelia. “House Heart.” Gunshot: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 16.

 

 

 

 

April Bradley

April is the Associate Editor of Bartleby Snopes. Find her online at aprilbradley.net

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