A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. –Mark Twain
Welcome to a new decade. Praying many blessings on your writing year. Let’s get back to exploring ways to use simple stage techniques to deepen the characters in our WIPs. We’ve been talking about layering our characters through costuming, so today we consider SHOES.
When dressing our characters, writers should learn what every woman already knows: the feet cannot be overlooked. Shoes matter. While the perfect pair of heels can make an outfit, an uncomfortable pair of shoes can break us.
One of the first things we do when we come in from a day at the office is kick off our shoes. Immediately, the way we carry our body changes. Tension is removed from the balls of our feet causing the heels and arches to relax. The muscles in the back of our legs assume the load of our body’s weight. Our shoulders go slack and we usually take in a deep breath. We relinquish the defensive body stance it took for us to compete successfully in the world and melt into the comfort of home. Whether we choose to go barefoot or don our favorite slippers, we now move about our abode in a more laid-back gait (unless you have toddlers…in that case, you hit the floor running).
How a person walks reveals their true internal rhythms, feelings, and emotions. From birth, we learn the conscious control of our facial muscles and what they communicate (wipe that smile off your face). But our feet are another story. Feet are wired to our limbic system or that area of our brain that reacts reflexively and instantaneously to stimuli. While these marvels of engineering can obey our commands to walk, run, and kick; they also have a mind of their own.
Without the need to employ higher-order cognitive reasoning, feet will bounce uncontrollably when we’re nervous or freeze in response to danger. These automatic responses make the feet the most honest part of the body. The body language of our feet, our gait or the way we walk, communicates attitudes, emotions, or feelings that the audience can recognize and understand.
Every person has a gait that is distinctive to them. My mom had polio as a child. Her footfall had a specific clomp, rest, clomp sound. If I was cast to act like my mother, imitating her awkward steps would be required.
Actors who are successful at portraying famous people spend hours studying any film footage they can find. Besides listening to the voice of their subject, they pay very close attention to how that person walked (Leonardo DeCaprio as Howard Hughes, Hillary Swank as Amelia Earhart, Meryl Streep as Julia Child) and then try to mimic that gait. Good costume designers devote extra attention to finding shoes that will help the actor transform their body language so they can portray the role convincingly on the stage.
Platform shoes add height. A tiny pebble can cause a limp. Military boots force an image of forceful vitality. Shoes rein in non-compliant feet and change body language.
So how can a writer use shoes to define the locomotion or gait of their characters? In Smoke Screen, Sandra Brown’s TV-reporter heroine always wears a suit and high heels. But when Sandra wants her readers to get a glimpse of her character’s growth, she changes the stuffy reporter into white tennis shoes and forces her to tramp through the woods. Immediately, the reader can picture this city girl trying to tiptoe around roots and mud puddles in an effort to keep those shoes clean. Soiled white shoes would make a woman who is always camera-ready feel less than her best. When a reader can picture the movements of a character in their own mind, that character suddenly gets up and walks off the page.
While each of us has a specific gait, changing our shoes will change how we walk. I walk one way in my comfortable Nikes and another way in my Sunday heels. Guys who slouch around in flip flops will strut like a bow-legged cowboy in snakeskin boots.
If you want your character’s gait to change, change their footwear. I’ve seen stay-at-home moms ditch their sneakers and slid into a pair of heels and take the stage like the CEO of a major corporation.
How do your characters walk? Do they move like a gazelle, lumber along like a sleepy bear, or stagger in a zigzag pattern like someone who’s had too much to drink? Is the posture upright and erect? Or slouched and limp? (Body Language for Dummies, by Elizabeth Kuhnke)
Check out their shoes. They may need a new pair.
Join us next week as we take up accessories and ask if a girl really can have too many earrings.