The Objects of a Character’s World

I’m reading Carrie Brown’s wonderful novel, The Last First Day, which I somehow missed when it came out in 2013. It’s the story of an aging couple and their sweep of time. The book opens on the first day of the new autumn term of New England’s Derry School for boys, where the husband, Peter, is the headmaster. The wife, Ruth, is getting ready to attend the opening assembly and to host a reception for the faculty that evening. The opening pages come to us from deep within Ruth’s consciousness as she readies herself for the evening’s events and as she contemplates the rough spots and the compromises of her long marriage. So little is happening as far as plot events, but so much is taking place inside Ruth’s heart, mind, and soul.

But still there’s narrative motion, just enough of Ruth moving about the house, making preparations, to let us feel that we’re heading toward something significant. There’s also enough of an unsettled feeling—the ominous threat of a storm, the loneliness of Ruth’s duties, Peter’s impending retirement and what that will mean to the balance of their lives—to keep us very interested in what will happen. The writing is beautiful; the narrative is graceful and leisurely; the details are precise and not just there for set dressing.

Consider the moment when Ruth, feeling that time is growing short, and she really must be leaving for the assembly, goes into the bathroom and takes notice of the items near the sink:

She went into the bathroom. In the mirror over the sink, the late afternoon’s light slanting through the window struck one side of her face—chin, high cheekbone, temple—brightening the silver of her hair. Two toothbrushes in an enamel mug on the sink’s edge, a cracked oval of pale green soap in a scallop shell, a damp washcloth draped on the glinting tap. . .these, too, were illuminated.

How beautiful such ordinary objects appeared, she thought, like the humble objects in Vermeer’s paintings—table, ewer, drape of fabric—mysteriously elevated to the level of sacrament.

Those details: toothbrushes, mug, soap, washcloth. Where else but in our bathrooms are our lives revealed so intimately? Because we’ve lived with Ruth so long and so well in the first thirty-eight pages of this novel, these details stand out for us as they do for her. A description of them earlier wouldn’t do the same sort of work because we wouldn’t have yet known what it feels like for Ruth to move through her life on this particular day. When we encounter them on page 39, though, we know enough about Ruth and Peter that these details are alive with this marriage.

So here’s a writing activity that we might use to start a new piece or to take us further in our thinking about something already in progress.

1.         If starting a new piece, imagine a character’s bathroom (this can work as well for nonfiction as it does for fiction) and take note of three very specific items. Be precise. If working with a piece already in progress, have a character walk into his or her bathroom and take note of three specific items.

2.         Give your character something very specific that has happened in the last twenty-four hours. Maybe a child has left home. Maybe a letter has come in the mail. Maybe a love has been lost. Maybe a great joy has come.

3.         Give your character a fear for the future.

4.         Give your character somewhere to go and someone to meet there immediately after leaving the bathroom.

5.         Don’t let your character touch any of the three items in the bathroom. Write the moment just before the person walks into the bathroom and sees them. Don’t let the character touch them. Make them be expressive of the character’s state of mind.

I hope this exercise will open up aspects of material that might otherwise remain closed. The objects of our worlds can mean so much if we take the time to know the inner life of those who own them.


  1. Beth on April 14, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Interesting exercise. Your comments about the book, as well as the exercise, reminded me of Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone. He is a master of the ordinary, of using details to reveal character, set tone, move plot, etc.

    • Lee Martin on April 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      Hi, Beth! The comparison to “Emily, Alone,” is right on the money. Yes! And perhaps Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” would fall into this category as well. Thanks so much for reading my blog and taking time to leave a comment.

  2. Robert Sykes on May 9, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Your suggestion prompted an early morning avalanche of words,feelings and memories as I attempt to expand upon the narrative of my current writing project…amazing how the “stuff” of our live can weave an identity mosaic of sorts…old photographs, musical recordings,trophies,books etc. can take us by the hand or grab us by the scruff of the neck at times…they are not merely backdrop…I will dust them off and reexamine the characters they reflect…Blessings and Gratitude…

    • Lee Martin on May 19, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      Robert, it’s always so rewarding to build a life for someone from the objects that they own. Good luck with your writing!

Leave a Comment