Exercises in Character: pt.1, “Small Humiliations”

It’s not the torment of the flames
That finally sees your flesh corrupted—
It’s the small humiliations that your memory piles up.
Elvis Costello, “This is Hell”

One of the strengths of fiction is the sense of intimacy that grows between its characters and the reader. Our challenge as writers, then, is to create this sense of intimacy. We need to make readers fall in love with our characters—or at least to feel a kinship with our characters, to feel like their confidantes. One way to do this is to let our readers in on the flaws of our characters.

Though we may admire acts of heroism in our protagonists, these acts don’t make us fall in love with them as characters. What really makes us identify with characters is the fact that they’re flawed. To put it another way, flaws make fictional characters human. Indeed, much of what makes for a good story can revolve around a protagonist overcoming his or her flaws. With this notion in mind, I’d like everyone to try a writing exercise I call “Small Humiliations.”

Step One. Come up with a list of things your character doesn’t want other people to know about him or herself. Some examples might include the following:

  • Guilty Pleasures
  • Secret Desire
  • Secret Worry
  • Weaknesses
  • “What if…” Obsession
  • Moment of Private Shame
  • A lie the characters has had to live with
  • Fears/Insecurities
  • Doubt
  • Bad habits

Keep in mind that these don’t have to be serious. In fact, it’s great if some of them are humorous. As a reader, I love when I can see a little bit of myself in a character’s odd little obsessions, and it’s always great when these obsessions can help me laugh at my own quirks.

Step Two. Take one of the items that you’ve listed above and design a scene or passage around it. You can have the weakness interfering with some mundane task in the character’s daily life, or you can depict, in the case of an embarrassing moment, the actual incident that led the character to carry the burden of a private shame. Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect; this is just a sketch to help you get to know your character a little bit better. You can always go back and polish it a bit if you want to work it back into a larger narrative.

(Click here for Exercises in Character: Pt. 2.)