New York is a walking city and lately, while I’m walking from place to place, I’ve been observing the way people walk. A walk reveals a great deal — attitude, age, health, personality and much more. Sometimes I can identify tourists (and often where they are from) by the way they walk with companions. Tourists from non-walking U.S. cities maintain a lot of space between the members of their family. They spread out and amble; and they are often perplexed when I race by them or weave between them. In some cultures best friends or grown children and parents routinely walk arm-in-arm; in others it’s more often a romantic gesture.
While developing a character in a story, I’m most interested in an individual’s walk and not their group interaction sidewalk style. A person’s pace, stride and gait are like gamblers’ tells. Some people waddle or shuffle, making slow progress. They may be elderly or infirmed, or simply fearful of the unpredictable surfaces. (Even after spraining an ankle when my heel caught in a pothole, I tend to fly out of habit. That definitely says something about me as a person.)
The long, loping stride of a very tall man, the scurrying of his shorter companion, the bounce of an eight-year-old and the tentative footfalls of an eighty-eight-year-old — are all fascinating and, I think, can be used to make a character real for a reader.
An uneven gait is an indicator of possible neurological problems. When I was researching serial killers I discovered that neurologists often start by observing a patient’s walk and that many sociopathic killers have both lesions on their brains (from early childhood abuse) and uneven gaits. My mother’s doctors have asked her to walk across the exam room just to see if there are changes that could be indicative of a problem. So far, so good and Mom is definitely NOT a sociopathic killer.
Quirky walks can be entertaining and enlightening. Does the kid who always leads with his right foot have OCD? What about the old gentleman who seems to glide along the sidewalk, is he a vampire or a former Broadway chorus boy?
Building a character from the shoes up is an interesting game.
Want to play?