Friday, August 04, 2006

A Mile in Someone Else's Shoes

A follow up to "What A Writer Wears" By Nichole Giles

by W. L. Elliott

Several current computer programs have what is called a “skin”, which is a fancy way of saying that you can change the way they look on your computer screen. The program still runs the same, it just looks different. It’s not really a skin, though, I’d call it more of a change of clothes.

People are like that, we change our clothes once or twice a day. It doesn’t affect the person we are, but it can widely affect our attitude and our self-view. It is actually proven fact that employees who wear business clothes will act in a more businesslike manner. Casual clothing results in a more relaxed, less formal atmosphere. Ask any woman who has ever dressed up, I mean really up, and she will tell you how elegant and sophisticated she feels. More than that, other people will treat her with greater care and respect than a woman who is ‘dressed down’. Men will open doors, waiters and waitresses will respond quicker, and salespeople will be much more attentive to a person who is dressed nicely than a person who is dressed casually. Dress sloppily and you can kiss you chance at attentive service pretty much goodbye.

So what does this have to do with writing?

We write characters. Characters are people. Well, usually. People have feelings about themselves – but do our characters?

Characterization is 99.44% of your story. Okay, I borrowed that number from Ivory soap, but your characters really are the important part of writing. What good would a plot be with no one to live it?

Everyone has heard that old cliché—“walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. But how many of us have ever really tried it?

The next time you have a character that needs fleshing out, I suggest doing just that. Does your hero need some fine-tuning? Put on his shoes. Followed by his pants, and his shirt, and his hat if he wears one. Is she a high powered business executive? Put on that black suit, stockings and sensible pumps and go to your office (even if it is only your kitchen table) to write your next scene. Is your knight having trouble saving the damsel in distress? Costume shops have a wide variety of great rentals (don’t try this in October), you may find the rental cost is worth the investment in research payback.

I, personally, love this trick of the trade, and have found it a powerful tool in building my characters.

Me? I have a green, full-length skirt and a white peasant blouse with sheer, flowing sleeves. Given any chance, I will put them on and go run through the grass barefoot. They make me feel poetic. They make me feel primitive. They made me feel like Rowena. In those clothes, I could feel what she would feel, a gypsy walking into a castle. The skirt swished around my ankles as I walked across the cold stone floor, and…

Sorry, sorry. I get carried away when I walk in someone else’s shoes.

But then, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?


Tristi Pinkston said...

Holy cow, WL, what a fantastic idea! (Hey, I know your first name. Is it against the law to use it? :) Anyway, I was just thinking about how this could be translated to any number of things. I could make some Vietnamese dishes to eat while I'm finishing up my current book. (I don't know how to cook Vietnamese, but I could learn) I could eat corn pone and bacon while editing my pioneer story. If a scene takes place in the woods at night, I could go sit in the woods at night to write it. (With a strong flashlight and my husband so I don't get mugged or eaten by a bear) You've got me thinking here. Thanks!

W.L.Elliott said...

Ooh! I don't know... my first name could be one of those mysterious things... Nah. Go right ahead and call me Wendy!

Speaking of sitting outside at night, believe it or not, I'm sitting on my front porch in the open air working on a story in which the wind is a major factor. It works, I'm tellin' ya!

As for the poineer story - you couldn't pay me enough to eat corn pone! Get jerky and corn fritters, it's just a true and it tastes a whole lot better!

It is a fun idea, though. Don't tell anyone, but I think it goes back to when we played dress up as kids - we could be anyone with the right costume! It sparked our imagination back then, who says it shouldn't do the same thing now?

Anyone working on a Regency something-or-other? I'd love to have a tea party!