Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Art of Writing Intimacy, Part 2

by Sarah Greene Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

In Part One, we discussed the natural, normal way that humans express intimacy. But fiction is a little different, not because we don’t follow the same steps in our writing, but because we show it differently on the page. And also in fiction, it’s not only about physical intimacy. It’s about how characters are introduced to each other and how they feel about it.

So, imagine a target with concentric circles. The one farthest out is red, with orange, yellow, green, blue as you go towards the middle. Purple is in the exact center. Each one has a specific “intimacy value” as a story progresses.

1. First awareness (Red)
When two characters meet, no matter which two, there is always an awareness of the other person. Of course, in fiction, we work very hard to eliminate superfluous characters, so these two (or more) should have a good reason to be in the story. But this step starts as simply an introduction. And, it doesn’t have to be sight only. It could just as easily be a smell or a sound.

A woman walked into the room. 

Across the hall, the baby screamed as if someone were beating it.

In this way, we introduce others to our POV character through his or her senses and, if necessary, our character reacts in some form or fashion. If this is an antagonist – whether beneficial or harmful – the awareness will evolve into something more. If, instead, it’s only a descriptive element, this may be all of the interaction needed.

Dorothy’s first experience in Oz is abject fear. She’s been through horrible experience after horrible experience and, when her world stops spinning, she opens her door to find everything is as far from normal as it can be, with no one she knows or can trust. Then, it gets really bad.

We receive all of this information through her eyes and, even though there is some interaction between the characters, there is really no deep commitment, as such, to any of them.

2. Interest blooms (Orange)
Take it a step farther. Our POV character has realized that the other person is someone he or she wants to know more about for whatever reason. It can be a heightened glance, a stare, a smile, a frown, anything that shows a nascent connection between these two characters. 

When Clarice first goes through the seven gates of hell into Lector’s prison (count them!) and meets him for the first time, he has an immediate reaction of interest. He’s assessing her, trying to determine if he can get in her mind. 

3. Reaction (Yellow)
And Clarice notices and reacts. We see her struggle to not be affected but Lector’s intense scrutiny is hard to shrug off. 

 A blush, a smirk, anger, joy – whatever the response the story and characterization calls for – is reaction. It shows interaction between the characters and allows for thought from the POV character, which will include at least a little back story, and another response. Again, where this goes from here depends on the needs of the story.

Dorothy’s reaction to her new and frightening surroundings depends on which character she’s interacting with – the Wicked Witch, the Good Witch, her trio of heroes, the Wizard – but each one goes through the process of first awareness, the bloom of interest and her reaction. And, so it goes to the next step:

4. Verbal Communication (Green)
An exchange in words. The characters will communicate with body language too, but dialogue is necessary for almost all genres. It also increases intimacy, because a “throwaway character” probably won’t get the even that much of a reaction. So, this raises the stakes. 

For two characters to speak to each other makes their inter-relations more personal and they become more involved. At this stage, the conversation probably isn’t going to be earth-shaking. There will probably be few secrets or mysteries revealed. 

Clarice knows that Lector’s ability to analyze and, therefore, dissect, people is dangerous, so she’s extra cautious about how much information she wants to divulge. In fact, she’s been specifically warned by her superior NOT to tell Lector anything. But, in the give and take of their relationship, she discovers the tit-for-tat won’t be free. The intimacy Lector demands is almost impossible for Clarice to furnish, at least at this point. Her desperation to save the Senator’s daughter isn’t great enough yet. But it soon will be.

5. A Step Closer (blue)
The stakes escalate. We see hints of the great darkness and a fear that lurks within. The form of communication is not important now, whether thought, body language or dialogue, but each type reveals a little more and we see our character taking a journey of discovery – discovery of other characters and self. 

Dorothy’s journey is not only an actual one, but also an expedition into her own abilities to connect with other characters and, sometimes, to stand up for herself. 

But intimacy is hard. And, eventually, the risk of our character notopening up is even worse than that ultimate intimacy. 

The struggle continues. And this is where the character growth occurs. Because to allow that giant leap takes courage that must be learned and nourished. 

6. The True Self (Purple)
Here’s where we strip away all facades, all masks. The true self is revealed, in a way that leaves the reader with no doubt as to the exact nature of both the protagonist and the driving force behind his or her actions. Secrets are revealed, deep emotions lay bare. But these things are shared with only a very select few, only the people who have earned the right to know. 

Clarice tells Lector the truth of the lambs and why she has to silence them in her mind. No one else, not even her boss who she wants to emulate, is privy to her innermost secret. But Lector has proven to her that he’s trustworthy, at least in his own way. It may not be enough for her to be happy about him running loose, but it’s enough for her to give him what he wants. 

During her entire story, Dorothy is attracted to various characters and, after a period of disbelief, trepidation and, finally a willingness to interact, she allows the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and even the Wizard, to become friends. Trust is a little harder to come by but, eventually, she gives that too, at least to the ones she cares about most. And, her final level of intimacy is with the family she cared enough to go home to. She shares her experiences with her aunt and uncle and, with her new-found knowledge about how relationships work, she finds peace.

I know that, to some degree, this may sound similar to something you’ve heard of before – the Hero’s Journey. Telling stories can be like that. We have a ‘formula’ where growth occurs and characters blossom into newly self-aware critters. It’s all good, because most character growth involves a huge amount of intimacy issues. And, until our protagonists figure out how to get along with others – whether it is Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle or Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Katniss in The Hunger Games – their intimacy issues will stop them from reaching their goals.

So, the question is:  Where do your characters fit on the circles when the protagonist is in the middle? They should all start in the red circle – at least as far as the reader is concerned – but, depending on the depth of the relationship, they should move towards someplace in the middle. Only a very, very few will reach the blue circle, whether it is friend or foe.  Others will change colors several times in a story or will not move hardly at all. The Wicked Witch, for instance, moves closer and closer until she becomes blue, but Glenda never goes deeper into the intimacy circle than yellow. She doesn’t need to – Dorothy has others she can trust to help her.

Eventually, intimacy becomes its own reward. It makes our protagonists stronger at the same time it gives them the courage to face the past. And the future.  

What colors do your characters stand on? How do they move around? Can you see that by giving them places to stand, you can work with their levels of intimacy? 

The Art of #Writing Intimacy - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Tips for #writing believable intimacy from @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Thank you for sharing this valuable information

    1. Thank you for reading it, Terry. Hope it helps in your writing!

  2. What a helpful follow up. Love the color identifiers.
    Thanks, Sally.

    1. Thank you, Ingmar. I find this really helps new writers especially, as they're struggling with how to make characters work.

  3. Thanks very much, Sally. Although I usually write non-fiction, this will help in the future if/when I take the leap into fiction.

    1. Roberta, I can see -- at least to some degree -- how this could possibly help in some types of non-fiction. Any interaction between two people can be described by this system. Of course, I may be stretching it a little. :)
      Thanks for writing!