The Ordinary Day


How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.   Annie Dillard

So, I'm working on the rewrite of my novel.  And one of the things I am attempting to do is deepen the secondary characters.  To do this, of course, I must first deepen my understanding of them.

Easy, right?

Well, no.  Because if I had a deeper understanding of the characters, I would have put it in the novel in the first place.  Duh.  So it is back to the drawing board, or journal, as the case may be. And I've returned to an old exercise I learned years ago, I think in a screen writing class I took as a lark. 

The Ordinary Day.

You're might be familiar with this one.  What you do is take your character through and ordinary day, from the moment he or she wakes in the morning until he or she goes to bed at night.  Every blessed moment of it.  Write it all down, every bit of it.

I am finding this to be the most useful window into a character's psyche imaginable.  Because, when you relax and really let yourself go with it, your character will begin talking to you.  And she will tell you all kinds of interesting tidbits, and explain many things from her past that you probably didn't know.

This is because Annie Dillard is right–how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.  How your character spends his day is how he spends his life and by really understanding that, you can understand him.  Plus, as your character goes through her day, her mind is busily engaged.  And the mental dross of an average day is gold, absolute gold.

For instance.  You start your character out by having her wake up in her bed.  What does her bedroom look like? Perhaps it is done up in whites and neutral colors like the photo above.  The first thing your character, call her Susie, sees upon waking up is this peaceful room.  Which she hates.  It's her husband, Ralph, who wanted this kind of design, because it feed his spiritual soul.  Spiritual, smeeritual.  Susie thinks that is all a bunch of crap.  She's not interested in spirituality, she's interested in success, and right now success would mean getting herself out of bed and out of this boring, drab bedroom and into her running clothes so she can get her three miles in before breakfast.  And hopefully she can run off some of her anger at Ralph, who seems to be getting as boring and drab as the bedroom he chose.

And so on.  Just the simple act of locating your character in her bedroom as she begins her day has already netted you a wealth of information about her: she is impatient, lively, likes things colorful and bold, far more interested in success than spirituality, energetic, and probably a classic type-A personality.  Plus her marriage is in danger and she's got quite the judgmental streak.  Not bad for a few minutes in the life of your character!

As you take your character on through the day you'll learn more and more about him.  Not only that, with luck, with any luck at all, your character will begin talking to you.  In his voice.  In his one and only truly unique voice.  And soon you will know him every bit as well as you know your best friend, or your child, or your spouse.

By the way, the Ordinary Day is a cool exercise to do for yourself when you want to change your life.  What you do is write out your dream Ordinary Day.  If you could do anything, without regard to the usual limitations of time, money, fear, etc., what would you do?  Where would you live?  Who would you be with?  Write it out, starting from the second you wake up.  This can become a powerful road map to where you want to go.  And the really great thing is that by writing it as a day in the life, it seems doable. 

How do you get to know your characters?  Have you ever successfully used the Ordinary Day exercise for a character or for yourself?

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7 Responses to The Ordinary Day

  1. Derek 06/17/2010 at 01:32 #

    I tend to focus on a character’s history first of all – how he got to be as he is now. I then take a moment to get to see him as he is. Hair, looks, state of health, aches and pains etc. I may then usually focus on one prominent health problem and have him relive how he got it. He may have come through a war battle or had an accident with his favourite hobby or sport or jealous husband. Then a ring of the doorbell or telephone would jerk him back to the present moment and his intentions to deal with a problem that day. And (hopefully)my imagination would take over and have the story unfold.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 06/17/2010 at 07:54 #

    Derek, I really like the idea of using a health problem as a take-off point. It could even be a minor scar, or a bruise.

    J.D., I have never heard to taking applications to be in a book. Brilliant! I think the question, “What the hell are you doing here?” ought to net you some interesting answers!

  3. J.D. 06/17/2010 at 04:56 #

    I’ve never used a day exercise; that’s interesting. I’ve read of people who interview their characters before writing. I’m considering a twist on that for my next book. Along with a day exercise, I plan to take applications from characters. One of the questions, of course, will be “Why do you want to be in my book?” And on my current book, I should probably ask some of my characters, “What the hell are you doing here?”

  4. Angela Artemis 06/17/2010 at 10:55 #

    Hi Charlotte,
    I used to fancy myself a fiction writer, but about 3 years ago it finally hit me – I’m not! I’m a non-fiction writer plain and simple – an information junkie. But, somewhere deep inside I still have that romantic notion of being a writer and living the writer’s life – you know, the kind of writer we see in the movies who travels to a Greek island to write for a year – that’s the kind I mean.

    In the meantime I just want to say that while I loved this post – I had an aha moment at your last paragraph. Advising us to write out what we’d like one ordinary day to be like for us if we had our dream life. This is pure genius Charlotte! It doesn’t seem insurmountable that way.

    Thank you. I always learn so much when I visit here.

  5. David Paine 06/17/2010 at 12:19 #

    Love this idea, though – perhaps indicative of why I get bogged down – I usually allow myself to become far too involved in my own ordinary day to look into anyone else’s.

    A challenge to be met! One of the six or eight dozen on the list. Perhaps I should move it ahead of knitting everyone a sweater for Xmas. …

  6. Charlotte Dixon 06/17/2010 at 14:17 #

    Angela, You can still have that dream Greek isles writing life and be a non-fiction writer, right? It is easier to sell non-fiction than fiction these days. I’m so glad the post gave you an ah-ha moment!

    David, You always make me laugh. Put those knitting needles down right now and take up the pen! I love your writing too much for you not to.


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