Have Your Characters
Step Out In Style

by Lin Stone

As professional people observers, writers are always looking for ways to show character, identify individuals and sustain the integrity in their scenes. By describing the way people walk we can make our scenes more real, and more interesting.

I have studied the way people walk ever since I was the only kid on earth. In hospitals, train stations, and on the open range I will evaluate people’s gait, how high they step, which way their toes point on the way down, how their feet are used in riding over each step, the length of their stride, muscular movement of the hips and shoulders, and their response to obstacles. 

All of us writers know to describe a sailor’s land side walk as a rolling gait. We know that farmers of the past century walked with their feet wider apart than anyone else because of the furrows they walked in. But, writers of today need to go deeper than that:

Cowboys who actually ride horses (and 90% of them only ride on Sundays these days) are strong in the thighs. They push themselves forward with the trailing leg. 

One cowboy, named James R. Schmoker, that I met in Korea was about a foot shorter than I was but his stride was longer than mine. When he and I were walking to actually get somewhere he would turn completely sideways to execute each step. When we were heading north and his right foot was reaching out for new territory to conquer, it would land with the whole foot pointing west. His left leg would be shoving his body up and over the right foot and as his body went over he would pivot on his right foot until it was pointing east when his left foot hit the ground, also pointing east. It sounds clumsy, and would probably kill anyone else trying to walk that way.

Runners are stronger in the calves; they PULL themselves forward with the leading leg.
Hikers take shorter steps, plowing ahead smoothly as if they were a ship with their entire bodies showing up as one undulating motion.

Native Americans who grew up in rugged country tend to have their chins tilted down slightly as they walk, but their eyes are looking straight ahead. Their feet are visible to them and so is the trail in front of them. Tracks or animal droppings take their attention.
Native Americans will also be very aware of the scents around them.

You will sometimes see them come to a full stop occasionally to identify a scent. If the odor has vanished they will back up, one step at a time, testing the air until at last they detect the source.

 Euromericans are more likely to turn around 
and retrace their steps to find the source. 

For example, I was in a closed building on the Mountain Ute reservation which was displaying the works of Ute weavers. In the blanket area I suddenly stopped, backed up a step, and sniffed at each of three blankets rolled on display there until I had zeroed in on the one blanket in that room which was made by a Navajo.

When I glanced back up to go my way I noticed a knowing smile was on the faces of all four Ute custodians there. I could feel their eyes following me as I walked to the door.

Now, let’s imagine a scene in your novel where five native Americans coming to a clearing where SOMETHING is sensed to be out of place. All will pause on almost the same foot in the same instant. The one in front will scan directly ahead, then to the left, then to the right, then lift his gaze to study the trees and the brush. 

If nothing obvious shows up, the ones behind the leader will split up ­ one to the left, one to the right, one to the left, one to the right. They will then move to vantage points where they will go through the same investigation process the leader went through. 

The vantage points they go to are determined by where the next great observation spot is located. 

Now, let’s imagine five Euromericans coming to a clearing where SOMETHING is sensed to be out of place. They will stop in discordant frequency with their eyes on their leader as if looking for directions. When THEY spread out it will be in groups.. Two to the left, Two to the right.

Furthermore, they will go to points of observation determined by distance and density of undergrowth from the leader. If the first group is 50 feet away from the leader, the second group will be 50 feet away from the first group.

If it is a matter of tracks which has disturbed them, the Euromerican group is more apt to squat down and study individual track tracks, searching for clues to size and nature of the maker of those tracks.

Native Americans are more likely to remain standing so that they can study the LINE of tracks. They can usually tell if the animal was looking to one side or straight ahead as it crossed. This is because even if the line of travel is straight across, the tracks themselves will be turned if the animal is looking to the left or to the right.

If the animal is looking to the left or to the right Native Americans are more apt to go see WHY it was doing that than to immediately follow the first set of tracks. Once they know what concerned the animal they can trail the first set of tracks almost in their imagination.

How? Well, let’s say a coyote made the first set of tracks and by discovering what held his interest we know it was a rabbit. The native American will know where the rabbit came from and where it is going; hence being able to turn a few chapters ahead and know where the next exciting installment of the story will unfold.

In the movies and books you will see Native Americans leaving home and searching for game. Oh, the diligence they use to not make a sound, how fascinating the way their eyes dart from side to side, looking for game as if it were going to surprise them by being out there. Ah, Hollywood!  Scenes like that remind me of the time I taught some Hopi friends the right way to make pottery.  The truth is, mincing around like that is a dang good way to get bit by a startled snake you don’t see in time ­ not to mention the fact your poor Native American won’t find a thing out there to eat when he’s walking around like that.

A rabbit that can hear a twig snap from half a mile away is going to be fooled by a pussyfooting human? Get real. Stalking only works on other, dull-sensed, human beings or animals frolicking in the wind. In real life the Native American KNOWS where the particular rabbit lives, eats, and frolics ­ and he goes there BEFORE the rabbit will arrive and AFTER the birds have decided he isn’t a threat to them and have settled back down. One shot and the Native American has supper in the bag.

Where then does this sneaking vision come from? Probably from watching them move through brush, cactus and trees. Follow a Native American through the countryside for a hundred miles and his legs or shoulders will only brush against the vegetation once, and that because you asked where he was going next at an inopportune time.

But, why does he avoid contact with the vegetation? Well, that’s because THAT’S where the ticks, chiggers, and other such ilk lie in wait for their next hosts to brush by. Once they get used to OFF® being available for a dollar a gallon Native Americans won’t be so cautious about touching the vegetation either.

The human foot is often used as an exploratory tool. For example, we took one gang of toughs from New Yorik City into the wilderness on a nature hike. As the city civilization turf was left behind they could be seen drawing closer together. When the hike into the dark forest began their taunting bravado disappeared altogether and their glances were constantly scanning every bush around them for hidden menace. 

Then we came to the top of a small hill and gazed down upon a crystalline lake. One kid, braver than the others, inched his way towards it. At the very edge he stopped, stared at the water for a moment, then put the toe of one shoe into the water and dragged it deeper and deeper along the bank.

“What on earth are you doing?” I asked.

Indignantly he responded, “I’m looking for the curb.”

In a flash of understanding I remembered my first trip on foot into a large city. I was gazing all around me until suddenly my foot almost came down on some slatted bars across my path.

I hesitantly touched the bars with my foot to see if they were real.

Then I studied them from where I was, then went around them to study them from the other side. Still puzzled I studied them from two other sides, and then studied them some more.

Charlie Post, Buckeye Arizona's police chief, came over to see why I was acting so suspiciously “Tink, what on earth are you doing?” He demanded. 

I pointed my chin at the slatted bars and asked, “Charlie, what kind of a cow is that guard supposed to stop from crossing here?”

Hey, I'm not so dumb; it took Johnny Weissmuller (portraying that noble Einstein in a loincloth) 28 years to get his legs into the swing of things.

Writers are always looking for ways to show character, identify individuals 
and sustain integrity in their scenes. By describing the way people walk we 
can make our scenes more real, and more interesting.  What a little limp did 
for Dennis Weaver can make your characters famous too.

the end

Lin Stone is the author of several books and numerous articles.  Click here to study a huge sample.