Life After NaNoWriMo, Day 1: Discover Your Character’s Habits

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Hello fellow writers and storytellers,

NaNoWriMo is done, and some of you now have chapters upon chapters of manuscript, and you now face the hard work of revision and deepening of your story. Where to start?

To help, I’d like to offer five excerpts from my popular book Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, one each day this week on my blog. Each daily blog will offer practical tips and exercises for digging more deeply into the inner lives of your characters — helping you to make your characters and their stories unforgettable. I offer the first of the five excerpts below.

Here is your free tip for the day:

DISCOVER YOUR CHARACTER’S UNIQUE HABITS

by Stant Litore

What are your character’s unique habits, and what do they reveal about your character’s traits and life choices?

Example: A Prayer Before Bed

In the film Shadowlands (dramatizing scenes in the life of C.S. Lewis, the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) there is a touching scene in which Jack Lewis brings his wife, Joy, home. She is dying slowly of cancer, and they married while in the hospital. After tucking his ailing wife gently into bed, Lewis, a long-time bachelor (he is about fifty), is unsure what to do. “Just do what you do every night,” Joy tells him.

Lewis shambles about the room, walking through his routine, narrating it: “Well, let me see, first…I come in through the door…and I walk over here…” He looks puzzled as he hangs up his coat and hat; he has never had another person in the room during his night-time routine. At last, he kneels beside the bed, folds his hands, and bows his head in prayer. “And then…then I pray,” he says.

Joy laughs, delighted: “Like a little kid!” Her eyes shine with amusement and love. “You’re just like a little kid!”

Look how much that character’s habits reveal about him! Not only that, but the habits are shown to the reader at a key scene where the writer has opportunity to reveal things not only about C.S. Lewis but also about Joy, and about their relationship. It would be a mistake (in most cases) to open a chapter with a lengthy description of the character’s habits. Find an opportunity to reveal them where the revealing has impact on the plot or on relationships that are key to your story – as in the case of Shadowlands, where one character is sharing his habits with another for the first time.

EXERCISE 16

Make a sketch of your protagonist’s morning routine and consider its implications. What is the first thing your character does, each day? Does your character hit the Snooze button on the alarm eighteen times before rolling (literally) out of the bed, with a groan? Does your character leap to her feet and begin doing aerobics in front of the mirror? What kind of alarm clock does your character own? Does it beep and screech? Does it play music? What station? (In Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden never punches Snooze because he has a Mickey Mouse alarm clock, and he tells the reader that the couldn’t live with someone who would punch Mickey Mouse. That is a revealing detail!) If your character lives with a spouse who is not a morning person, what does she do first in the morning? Rise and tiptoe softly out of the bedroom, gently, not wanting to wake him? Does she kiss his shoulder or his hair before tiptoeing out? Is there a morning when, angry, she breaks from routine, goes to the kitchen and slam cabinet doors and slam the skillet down on the stove, and generally makes as much noise as possible? Is there a morning when she decides to wake him in a more intimate way?

EXERCISE 17

Make a sketch of your protagonist’s evening routine and consider its implications. What is the last thing your character does, before bed? Does he cover his head with a pillow? Does she sing softly to herself or say mantras, hoping to ward off nightmares? Does she clutch a teddy bear close, almost childlike, feeling in the moment before bed each night a terrible loneliness? Does he drink himself to sleep? Does he masturbate? Does he brush his teeth, fastidiously, for exactly two minutes, and then put his brush carefully in its holder and tidy the sink before approaching his carefully made bed? Does he read one chapter each night from a novel before flicking off the light? Does he leave all the lights on? Does he leave just one light on, maybe in the hall? Does he, each night, check the bedside drawer to make sure his gun is ready?

Our habits define us; they structure our lives and they reveal about us more than we think.

Read more in Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget — and watch this blog for tomorrow’s tip!

Stant Litore

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