Writing Characters: How to Use Daily Rituals to Strengthen Characterization

In writing characters readers will love and remember, authors often make good use of everyday rituals.

In a long piece of writing, such as a novel, it's important to create fresh action for each scene, so characters are not constantly interacting in the same way. All of us perform daily rituals. Some people meditate or participate in prayers. One person may spend an hour in tub. Another lays out all the ingredients for a meal in advance. We all shave, shower, dress, eat, sleep, work, weigh ourselves, and exercise. We perform various prunings and self-examinations.

Writing: Character Development Using Daily Rituals

Our numerous rituals, and how we perform them, say quite a lot about us. We can deepen character development in our fictional characters by giving them similar rituals.

One individual's dresser drawer may contain two dozen pairs of matched socks, an equal number of cotton boxers, and several T-shirts, all precisely folded. Another individual may rifle through an unknown number of loose socks searching for a single pair that matches. He may wear briefs, not boxers, and his T-shirts hang in the closet as his only shirts.

One person may have 120 pairs of shoes, while another has three. One man uses an electric razor, while another uses disposable razors. One woman sets her hair in hot rollers each morning while another towels her hair dry and doesn't give it another thought.

Writing characters, realistic and authentic characters, means considering these rituals and what they illustrate about the character's nature. Give readers a glimpse of your character's closet, medicine cabinet, or cosmetic case, and then show the character making use of the items seen there.

In my novel Burning Ground, Percy Turner has to heat a gallon of water and transfer it to a shower bag before her bathing ritual can begin. I describe how she has to wet herself down, turn the water off, lather up, and then turn the water on again to rinse. Mosquitoes feed on her as she bathes, and when she runs out of water, she rinses her hair with icy rainwater. The details were designed to suggest sensuality in the character, even in primitive conditions.

As you read or watch movies, take note of the rituals you see, and of how the writer handles each ritual to strengthen characterization.

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