If Your Character is a Monkey,
He’s Going to Act Like a Monkey
Recently, I attended the annual cotillion dinner for eighth graders. Every year I have a standing gig teaching a three-hour tutorial dinner on how not to eat like a monkey. Here in southern USA, cotillion in a social rite of passage. It’s an opportunity for young ladies and gentlemen in middle school to learn social graces – how to ask a lady for a dance, how to escort her onto the floor, and how to shuffle around in such a way that it might be construed as dancing. And after I get through with them, they also know it is improper to eat with one’s feet or to swing from the chandeliers.
Back in the day, when I went to a ladies’ finishing school - yes, I know, jaw dropping - I danced with many a gangling boy who spent all of his concentration on what the hell his body was doing and none of his attention on me, his graceful dance partner. Sigh. I spent my dancing time watching the boys like microbes on a petri dish, developing some of my boy-theories (of which I have many). One of my theories leads me to state that within a few seconds of dancing, I can guess what sport a man has played the most. Seriously.
Our bodies do what our muscle memories feel comfortable doing. Given a lack of dance classes to teach a new set of feel-good moves, a body under stress will drop to its lowest common denominator. You played baseball? You’ll roll your hip towards your dance partner, put your hands together like you’re swinging a bat (2x), and then twist to the other side and repeat. If basketball was your game, you’ll square off and be light on the balls of your feet with bent knees and some shoulder pops. Martial artists will keep their hands in fists and do a series of arm blocks and low kicks. And wrestlers? Don’t even get me started.
When I met my husband, it was on a dance floor. He was the kind of guy who liked to live life on the edge, and he thought I was pretty edgy and probably high on acid. But that’s a different story for another day. Let’s just say I was burning through some stress. So here he comes inviting himself into my dance space to dance with me. Fine. First thing I did was check out his moves to determine his sport, and I have to say the man had me flummoxed. His feet were parallel and stationary, his hands in light fists in front of him, body swaying from the knees to the melody. Yeah, that one took me a while. Finally, it dawned on me. I leaned in, “So you’re a skier?”
He looked at me dumbfounded. “How did you know?”
I tapped the side of my head. “I’m a mind reader. I’ve read your whole story. In fact, I know everything there is to know about you.”
He stopped dancing and blushed. That was pretty cute. I wondered what I could possibly have read in his mind that would turn him that shade of pink. Then he grabbed me up, spun me around, and dropped me into a dip. “Well,” he said, “whatever you read in there you must have liked ‘cause you’re still dancing with me.” It was a cocky as hell answer. Coupling that with his lopsided one-dimpled grin, along with his Texas drawl meant that it wasn’t a surprise that I gave the man my phone number. The rest is history.
By now you’re wondering just what this article is all about; it’s all about muscle memory. I told the kids at the cotillion dinner that my approach to etiquette had to do with my interest in self-defence (yes, most of our standard polite moves are all about staying alive) and an interest in behaviour. I explained that it is imperative that they work to build good etiquette into their muscle memory for several scientific reasons.
1. In times of stress – when someone most wants to impress the love of their life, get the job, or just feel comfortable in a social situation – anxiety will cause the blood from the head to go to the feet and hands to prepare for flight or fight. That’s right; no blood in the head means very little thinking is going on.
2. You never know when you will be confronted with that time of stress when you just need your body to function correctly, darn it! And it takes 21 days to form a habit. So if that dinner is tomorrow, you’re out of luck.
3. Just because you’ve seen it and you cognitively know the rules doesn’t mean you can do it. My daughter is a nationally ranked Irish dancer. I have sat through hundreds and hundreds of hours of dance classes, rehearsals, and performances. I couldn’t jig my way out of a box if my life depended on it. The body takes time and repetition to move the information from short-term to long-term memory. And until that move is made, your muscles will want to revert to the path of least resistance, that is what it already knows and is comfortable with.
4. Lies are hard to maintain. A mind that is busy remembering all of the details of the lies it just told (as in new body movements that are not part of the body’s normal repertoire) is a busy mind indeed. And it shows. The face becomes plastic, affects a disingenuous smile, and sticks there. Your character will give other body “tells,” that inform the person on the receiving end of this display that there is something not right going on and on a subconscious level the recipient of the lie-behaviours begins to feel that, “Hey, this guy isn’t trust worthy.”
As a writer, why do you need to understand this? Well, your character does certain things with his or her body. And that’s what that body knows how to do. If you set up a fight and the hero has never fought before, he’s going to fight BADLY. He’s going to throw wild hay-maker punches; he’s going to kick with a floppy foot and probably break his toes. If your heroine has never held a gun before, she is not going to get it on target. She’s not. She won’t jump out of her bedroom window and scale the side of the building along the window sills and jump and roll to safety. Because – no matter how many times she’s seen it on TV - jumping and rolling is a skillset. An instructed, practiced, and executed again and again and again skillset.
If you want to write your characters right, and make them truly believable. Think about the lives they’ve lead up until that point. Think about what their bodies know how to do and what they do not know how to do. Remember what the mind can conceive does not mean their bodies are able to achieve. Unless you send them to training - and remember that 21-day thing – it takes time to build muscle memory.
Best of luck as you plot along. You’ll find helpful “how to write it right” articles on my blog site www.ThrillWriting.blogspot.com My website is www.FionaQuinnBooks.com and on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest you’ll find me at Fiona Quinn Books.