Picture of person in blue jeans with brown shoes walking on a path in winter to illustrate mastering your character's walk

Mastering Your Character’s Walk: 1 Unique Way To Improve Your WIP

If I can master the walk, I can understand the man.

Woody Harrelson said this to Jeannette Walls during a phone interview they had while he was preparing for the role of her father in the movie version of The Glass Castle. This was one of the many stories Jeannette shared during last month’s reading.

Woody felt certain that mastering his character’s walk would teach him who Rex Walls was.

Soon after, the director invited Jeannette to the movie set. She arrived on a day when they were filming one of the movie’s most difficult scenes. Alone, in the shadows, she watched her childhood come to life, then retreated to have a good cry.

Minutes later, Woody approached her, still in character, and put his hands on her shoulders. “You had to leave,” he said, as if channeling her father. “It’s what brought us here.”

This is empathy in action.

Some stories show up in the body. Mastering a character’s walk, the set of their jaw, or the way they sit can tell you a lot about how they feel about themselves and the world. 

Sometimes it’s easier to practice this kind of empathy with fictional characters first, because we’re free of the baggage that comes with real-life relationships. But once you’ve done that, empathizing with yourself first, and then with your other characters, can have a powerful effect on you.

I grew up in a house with a level of chaos similar to Jeannette’s. While we always had food to eat, we hungered for peace and safety. At seventeen, I carried a trash bag filled with my belongings across a divided highway—this time, leaving home for good. On the mile-long trip to the house I’d live in during my senior year, I tried on many different walks, hoping one of them would catapult me into adulthood. 

A single terrified thought rang through my head: what the hell am I going to do? Until I’d thrust my teddy bear into my bag, my only concern had been getting safely away from my father. But now that I felt that bear’s plush body through my trash bag, I felt so young.

Leaving was an act of survival that had many costs. My father and I barely spoke for several years after I took off. Reconciliation required a lot of hard work and healing, but we’re now in a place where we can talk openly and compassionately about the past without sugar-coating or bypassing the difficult parts.

Finding and understanding my walk gave access to a part of my story I’d yet to mine and feelings I’d yet to express. Once I’d done that work, I focused on my father’s gait. In each trudging step, I felt the heaviness of what he carried as well as the love he felt despite being an ill-equipped parent.

For a long time, I thought that was enough—and maybe it was, because my empathy changed the dynamics between us. But I still struggled with how I could maintain this empathy and be true to my writing life. 

While my parents support what I do, my decision to write about our lives hasn’t always easy for them. Their discomfort used to make me second guess my decision. But the first time I read one of my published essays to my father, he put his hand on mine and said, “You had to leave. It was the best decision you could’ve made, and I’m glad you did.”

When I told Jeannette this story, we hugged then gave each other a tearful nod. Sometimes leaving is the most empathic thing you can do—even if it’s difficult.

But we don’t always know this. 

That’s why stories contain so much power. 

This is why you need to master your character’s walk.

You are here because of the stories you’ve lived. Some still course through you. A handful of those beg to be written. Before you head to the page, I want you to go outside and consider your characters’ walks. Start with yourself. Pay attention to every aspect of your gait and the story embedded in your movements. Then try on other characters. See what you learn about your story and yourself.

If a character has harmed or abused you, please skip this exercise for now. Instead, write down what work you’d need to do to get to a place where stepping into your character’s walk might feel safe enough to try. If you’re not sure what that work is or why I’d ask you to do something so difficult, sign up for The Psychology of Memoir and learn the neuroscience behind why this story calls to you. 

Then consider what you can do to crack open enough space in your heart to see yourself and your story in new ways. Who knows where this might take you.

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