Character Development: Write the Walk
Who knew you could tell so much about a character from the way they walk?!
It may seem like an odd trait to focus on, but the various aspects of someone’s walk can be a great avenue for expressing things about their personality. In my experience as a therapist (and you may have seen this in your own life) people with various dominant personality traits may walk in a particular manners. And walking alone only tells part of the character development story. Having your character walk with a group or just one other person can give the reader some insight into the kind of person they are as well.
Here are some examples.
I went to middle school with a guy who was always bouncing on his toes. I always imagined that, by the time we finished high school, he was going to have the biggest calves in history. It looked like he was walking with 2 or 3 inch heels on that nobody else could see.
The overarching theme for why someone walks like this (especially if they walk quickly) is that they are impatient, which can also mean they are judgmental and stubborn. Here are a couple of reasons why a character you’re developing might walk like this (besides physical pain):
They’re anxious. Either in the moment, or perpetually (as I suspect was the case with my classmate), people may exhibit anxiety or nervousness by not letting their heels touch the ground. This could be due to anything from past trauma to stimulant use.
They’re eager. Someone who is excited for something they are really looking forward to may walk in a similar manner. Someone who is experiencing some kind of situational mania (they just won the lottery, they just accepted a marriage proposal, etc.) may be on cloud nine. What better way to manifest that kind of exuberance than by trying to levitate? 😀
I’m guilty of being one of the slowest casual walkers you will ever meet in your life. People pass me on the sidewalk as if I’m crawling and they’re sprinting. I understand that part of this has to do with being obese (I’m working on it!), but part of it may have to do with my laid-back, low-energy personality. In character development, having your character’s walk be slow can represent the following about them as a person:
They’re in control. If a meeting can’t start until you get there or you don’t work and aren’t looking for a job, you have all the power. What’s the hurry? Taking time to smell the roses and fully experience your trek from your limousine to the top floor won’t do any harm. This person may wait for no one, but have many people (eagerly) waiting on them. Kings, presidents, mob bosses, dictators, and the like may have a slower-than-average walk for this reason.
They’re simple-minded. On the other end of the spectrum, someone may be a slow walker because they have trouble with basic multitasking. They are looking at things, smelling things, hearing things, feeling things, thinking things, and walking all at the same time. All these other non-walking activities are slowing them down due to sensory overload.
They don’t want to go. You might have expressed this in a few other ways, but a nice nuance to add in when someone doesn’t want to go somewhere is that they walk slowly towards that place. The groom that shuffles slowly to his spot at the front of a Christian wedding. The 10-minute walk to school that takes 30 minutes today because there’s a bully lying in wait. These are the types of scenarios in which having someone walk noticeably slowly just shows the depth of their reluctance and feeling of helplessness.
I have several people in my life who I see as Road Runners because I walk so slow. But there are others that, even for an average walker’s speed, move very quickly. When walking with children, the children often struggle to stay 5 or 10 feet behind. Small dogs might even get left in the dust. Here are a few specific traits that your quick walker may have:
They’re anxious. Sometimes people walk very quickly, even when they’re not going anywhere in particular. Just enjoying the warm weather with a walk through the park can turn into a marathon for whomever they’re walking with. Generalized anxiety may have the person feeling as though they must move quickly even though, if asked directly, they could not tell you why and likely don’t even realize they’re doing it.
They’re impatient. Sometimes people walk very quickly because they’re ready to move on to the next activity, destination, topic of conversation, etc. Because they may not have control over who they’re talking with, the distance to the restaurant they’re going to, or what they’re going to do once they get to the park, they want to just hurry up and get there and get it over with. These kinds of people may have severe problems with control in relationships. Their way is the right way and there will be no discussion (Translation: If you can’t walk at the same speed I do that’s your problem, not mine). They may also have problems with compassion for people who think, feel, and behave differently from them.
This person may walk at just about any speed, but it still takes them a while to get to their destination because they can’t focus on getting there. They stop to have conversations with strangers, they pluck flowers, they try to find the owner of a stray dog, and so on. This character may, of course, have severe AD(H)D. However, a couple of other issues could be at play:
They’re forgetful. If someone’s memory is beginning to fade due to a condition such as dementia, not being able to focus on a task like walking—especially with so much stimuli around—can help tell that story. When my great-grandmother was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, she couldn’t get through one room of the house to use the restroom without talking about 3 or 4 different things on the way or even forgetting why she was walking in the first place.
They’re afraid. Much like the slow walker who doesn’t want to reach their destination, this person may be stalling while they make a plan, think of what they’re going to say, or try to figure out a way to not get to their destination at all via a viable excuse.
Walking in Groups or Couples
When your character is walking ahead of a group, it could mean that they are the only one who knows where the restaurant or concert is. However, in less pleasant character development, walking ahead of the group shows impatience, arrogance (they assume the group is just going to follow them blindly), or judgement (they don’t want to be seen in the same company as the group for whatever reason).
When someone does this in a couple, it could be a matter of religious protocol (the woman walks x amount of steps behind the man as a show of respect). However, it can point to there being a rift between the two people. For example, let’s say Mary tells her husband she’d like to walk around the new mall downtown to see what stores are available. If he agrees, but then walks 10 feet ahead of her throughout the visit instead of walking beside her, it can show that he thinks he’s better than her, is feeling impatient or resentful towards her, or even has tired of her and wants his single life back. Walking far in front of someone can show some deep levels of disrespect and disconnection.
Walking beside someone or with the rest of the group often symbolizes someone’s high comfort with and strong connection to those people. Characters can also show their devotion to, obsession with, or interest in a person over the task at hand by walking beside that person. If Jake and George are walking to a place that George has never been to before, Jake can guide George there while walking beside him instead of putting great physical distance between them as he leads. He can use hand gestures and words to direct (i.e., “Let’s take a left here,” “Now we’re gonna to down these stairs.”).
People also stick with their designated groups because they don’t feel comfortable, but they don’t want to stand out. If they walk too far ahead or behind, someone’s bound to notice and tell them to slow down or hurry up. If your character is shy and / or new to the group, they’ll probably conform to the group’s walking speed and pattern in order to not “rock the boat” socially.
Back of the Bus
Our Havanese, Charlie, who died in December 2015 used to play this role beautifully (unfortunately! :D). The Labrador and Jack Russell would drag me up the street if it weren’t for head leashes. But Charlie was always 3 or 4 feet behind us. Being a low-energy, calm dog we’d rescued from an abusive situation, I chalked it up as him being either nervous about walking around outside or trying to give me respect by letting me “lead the pack.” Who knows?!
With humans, there are also various reasons why someone might choose to stick to walking behind a person or group. Walking leagues behind a group could denote feelings of inadequacy, estrangement, or even criticism towards the group. Again, the emphasis may be on not appearing to be associated with the group.
When walking with a single other person, walking behind could be an expression of uncertainty about the relationship, a lack of trust between the two people, or a strong disinterest in going to the next destination with them (physically or romantically).
These are just a few ways I’ve observed that authors can take advantage of describing someone’s walking patterns to flesh out their personality more genuinely during character development. None of this is set in stone, but is meant to help us as writers think more deeply about the characters we create and the details that make them who they are.