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Life After NaNoWriMo, Day 2: Discover Your Character’s Secrets

Dear writers and storytellers,

Here, as promised, is the second of five excerpts from my popular book Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. I am offering one excerpt free each day this week on my blog. Each includes 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 second of the five excerpts below.

And now, on to your free tip for the day:


by Stant Litore

What are your character’s intimacies—things your character knows that she shares with very few people? In compelling stories, characters have secrets, intimate knowledge about themselves that they conceal from themselves or from other people, just as we do in our own lives.

Showing these on the page not only reveals what your character is most shy about or values highest; they also provide you with ingredients for key scenes. The scenes in which a character chooses to reveal (or not to reveal) intimate knowledge are often rich with possibilities for tension, emotional conflict, and catharsis.

Example: Penelope’s Tree-Bed

At the end of The Odyssey, when Odysseus has slain the suitors and stands ready to reclaim his house, there is a tender scene in which he and Penelope look across the room at each other. This is not Hollywood; he and his wife, separated for twenty years, do not rush across the room, leap into each other’s arms, and swing around in a circle to swelling, orchestral music. He has been gone twenty years. Penelope needs to know if this man is still her husband. She needs to know that in two ways – is this man actually Odysseus? And is he still her Odysseus, the man she once knew?

So Penelope tests him. She suggests that he sweep her off her feet and take her to their bed, and drops a few details about the bed. The bed she describes doesn’t actually exist. Odysseus, perhaps with a look of wonder and beseeching in his face, answers by describing the bed that does exist. “What are you talking about?” he asks. “I carved our marriage bed, with my own hands, from the trunk of a great olive tree that stands in our bedroom, rising out of the floor and up and right through the roof. I carved the bed in an alcove, right in the living wood; I carried you to it on our wedding night.”

This is something only the two of them know, a memory and an intimacy that only they share. By the fact that Odysseus knows of it, and by the tenderness in his voice as he speaks of it, Penelope knows that he is still her Odysseus. Then the tears and the embraces come.

 Example: The Heel of the Loaf

Here is a story an editor shared with me, some years ago. An elderly couple are having dinner, and are fighting heatedly. The argument gets louder and louder; they fight like this many nights and go to bed bitter with each other. As they fight, the husband is serving food onto his plate and his wife’s. At one point, he slices the loaf of bread on the table and puts the heel of the loaf on his wife’s plate.

“And that’s another thing!” she yells. “Why do I always get the heel of the loaf? What am I, a servant?”

He doesn’t reply, and she falls silent when she sees the shock on his face.

There is a pause.

When the husband breaks the silence, his voice is soft and filled with wonder, concern, and a little hurt. “That’s my favorite piece.”

Two intimacies are shared at this moment, without being stated directly. He never knew that she feels devalued when he gives her the heel of the loaf, and she never knew that all these years, he has been giving her the first cut of the bread, giving up his favorite piece so she could enjoy it. The entire scene turns on this small gesture, this brief revelation, because it reveals to each character so much about how the other feels. After this moment, they can’t fight any more; the scene will probably have a happier ending than the reader initially expected!

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

Stant Litore

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