DeathGroundWriter Workshop: Exploring Your Character’s Private Room

Image by Aaron Burden

You’ve probably heard this writing metaphor before when it comes to characters: what is depicted on the page is just the tip of the iceberg, hinting at something more vast and complex beneath the surface. The vast structure beneath the surface of what you see depicted in a scene is the backstory of that character: what came before to make them who they are in the present. Even if those buried traits do not rise to manifest themselves directly in a scene of your novel, they still serve as an indirect influence in subtler ways.

I like to imagine my character alone in their bedroom. Maybe this room is a small studio apartment, or one of many in a grand mansion. Perhaps your character is a drifter staying in motel rooms or sleeping on strangers’ couches. Whatever the scenario, how they interact with that room will tell you a lot about them. Are they extremely tidy? Do they carefully fold each piece of clothing and stack it in the same place every night? Do they feel near panic at the slightest sight of dust and must clean it immediately? Why? What influences them to be this way? Did a family member from their past exhibit this same behavior? Does your main character still hear this family member’s demanding voice echoing in their mind? If the room is tidy or messy it reveals a lot about the character’s personality and backstory. Explore it.

What else can you describe about his/her private room? Does abstract art hang on the walls? If so, what does that tell you about your character’s way of thinking? Perhaps instead they like to display pictures of family. This tells you family is special to them. Why? Is their a particular family member they value most? All kinds of character revealing pathways to explore in the art and decorations throughout the room.

There’s one important question I always ask myself when exploring a character’s private room. This question really penetrates the heart of them, the juicy center: what secrets do they conceal in their room? It may be an object hidden in the closet or under the bed. What does that object mean to them? Why is it kept hidden? This question can lead to some fascinating answers about your character, and sometimes the answer is the course of a plot, which happened to me while writing a short story called “The Butterfly Girl” (unpublished). I discovered that a hat belonging to her father was very special to her, because it triggered precious memories to her mind about fishing with her deceased father when she was a child. Later she uses the hat as part of a conjuration ritual in an effort to contact her deceased father’s spirit.

The secret doesn’t have to be an object. It could also be an activity they practice alone that nobody knows about. Either way, exploring your character’s bedroom is an invaluable tool for character development and backstory.

Happy exploring!

Why I Write

It’s fun to find an old book you haven’t seen for a long time. There it is, tucked away in the dusty corner of your bookshelf, hidden away like an old fossil or relic. You pull it out, brush the dust off, and recognition strikes you. You remember the day you bought it, the place you spent reading it, and all the relevant content. It’s a little like meeting an old friend after many years. You can’t help but remenisce nostalgically.

I recently had this experience as I was rummaging through one of my bookshelves. The book that called out to me like that long lost friend was an instructive book called Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs.

I riffled the pages, turned to random sections, and smiled as I read passages highlighted all those years ago. The book had been required reading for a creative nonfiction course I attended at Utah Valley University. I remember this period being very fruitful for my writing. The creative nonfiction lens opened new doorways in my imagination, and motivated useful introspection which developed a greater understanding of character.

One essay particularly moved me. It served as a mission statement. The author of this inspiring manifesto is Terry Tempest Williams. The question she answers in her essay is one I think we authors seldomly think about, although we often intuitively sense the answer: why do we write?

At the beginning of the creative nonfiction course that year, me and my fellow classmates had to ask ourselves the same question. Why do we write? The process of answering the question, of digging deeper into my own motivations as a writer was inspiring, insightful, and anchored me with a stronger sense of orientation. I knew where I had been. Now, where was I going?

Today I will ask myself the same question. Maybe much has changed since the first time I asked this question eight years ago. Perhaps some conclusions have remained the same. Regardless, it’s always good to declare my mission statement, to reorient my course and desired destination.

Why I Write

I write to understand what I’m really thinking. I write to refine my thinking. I write to see the world through a new lens. I write to observe myself through a new lens. I write because a story has possessed me and won’t let go. I write to see where it leads. I write to run down a dream. I write to be entertained. I write to be emotionally moved. I write to inspire. I write to be scared and to scare you. I write for the love of it. I write for the need of it. I write because so badly I want you to understand. I write to express what I believe. I write to express my own beliefs. I write to understand my own beliefs. I write to create order out of a chaotic order. I write to bring life to the page. I write to build worlds. I write to form conclusions. I write to ask questions. I write to wage battle with evil. I write because I want to see good prevail. I write to confront harsh realities. I write to shed light on darkness. I write to seek reconciliation. I write sometimes because there’s simply nothing better to do.

Why do you write?

Writing Creative Nonfiction is available in Amazon.

“Rule one, you have to write. If you don’t write, nothing will happen.”

Neil Gaiman