Home, Sweet Home: How To Describe Where Your Characters Live And Travel
Even in stories where characters are predominantly in transit, it’s important to have a strong idea of what the setting looks like, smells like, and even feels like. This information can be brainstormed before the writing process officially begins, or it can be accumulated at a later point. Every author approaches writing differently, and therefore my suggestions should be weighed for applicability before they are followed.
For characters who are in transit, consider the why of their movement when describing the scene. After all, a character on a leisurely vacation in Switzerland will notice details at a different speed and with less urgency than a character who has been kidnapped and who is trying to memorize his or her surroundings in case he or she is rescued and such details can be offered to the police. Moreover, what a character notices in a setting should reflect the overriding interests of each character. For instance, a stylish, snobby character is more likely to notice the window displays of the fanciest boutiques in Paris, France, whereas a character disinterested in fashion and obsessed with history is likely to notice historical locations around town and never realize he or she has passed any fancy boutiques.
Characters will vary, in addition, to how poetically or otherwise they will interpret a scene. While an excessively pragmatic, unfeeling character might report “The sky was a light blue and the day was warm,” a more romantically-inclined character might declare, “Today’s weather reminds me of the carefree summer days of childhood.” Furthermore, one character might offer an overly detailed description of the scene which includes the exact number of spoons in the drawer and number, color, and design of the cups in the cupboard, whereas another character might instead observe, “There weren’t enough spoons for the ice cream social” without mentioning the exact number of spoons.
One way for you, as the writer, to start thinking about setting is by watching one of your favorite movies and, during this viewing, periodically pausing this movie when you reach a memorable scene. I’ve watched the movie “Dan In Real Life” numerous times, and the scene in which Steve Carrell’s character meets Juliette Binoche’s character in a store which, though not exclusively a book store, features many books, never fails to mesmerize me because of how seamlessly the action of selecting books to purchase is woven into their conversation. This detail, instead of them merely conversing at a coffee shop, is what brings the scene alive for me. Another viewer, however, may find this scene boring, as well as notice details which escape me because I am watching them interact with books and each other.
In addition to analyzing and exploring scenes of your favorite movies, it is prudent to look at your favorite short stories, novels, and book series to see which elements of setting grab your attention. It should come as no surprise that no two writers will be drawn to the exact same details. Certain writers will consider the described and even implied smells essential to the plot. This can mean anything from mentioning the sound of bacon frying on a Sunday morning to a more subtle comment about the lingering odor of moth balls on a character’s jacket after he draped it across a chair. If the characters are outside, the outdoor odors can be mentioned: the smell of fresh-cut grass; the odor of wood-smoke from a bonfire; and even the crisp, almost tangy odor of pine trees following a heavy downpour. Smells, especially if described subtly, can add another layer of interest to the story.
If your characters don’t spend much time in transit, it’s useful to consider what their homes look like both on the inside and the outside. If the majority of the plot unfolds inside their home, there may be less need to describe in much detail the outside of their house, apartment, condo, or cabin. This, however, isn’t true if the outside of the character’s home is described to convey an important plot detail. In a murder mystery, for instance, in which the killer only kills single woman who live in odd-numbered apartments, the fact that your single female character lives in apartment number seventeen is significant. Another example of when describing the outside of a home may is necessary would be if the character is visiting a fancy vacation home and you need to establish how ritzy the place is by describing the outside of the home (including the well-manicured grounds) in detail.
Under normal circumstances, however, an author should probably focus more on, in varying amounts of detail, describing the inside of a character’s home. Even if most of the action in the story or novel takes place away from the character’s home, an author still benefits from knowing whether the character has a clean, tidy home or a disorganized, grime-encrusted one. In my experience, many people have clean, orderly parts of their home as well as dusty, disorderly areas. While extreme examples exist on both sides of the organized and cleanliness spectrum, it may be helpful to assume your character’s dwelling doesn’t rest on either extreme. That is, however, unless the plot turns on your character being excessively clean and organized, or, on the other extreme, if your character is a hoarder who is unable to discard a used bandage and has stacks of newspaper reaching almost to the ceiling.
Consider the plot of the piece and the overall personality of the character as you determine what this character’s home looks, smells, and feels like. An unsentimental, friendless character, for instance, seems unlikely to have a dozen framed pictures of family on his or her bedroom wall—that is, however, unless this character is deluded about her lack of real relationships and sincerely believes that she maintains close connections to her family despite all evidence to the contrary.
An author should also consider the income and spending habits of the character when describing their home. It’s possible that a character who works as a cashier in a grocery store has acquired several credit cards and purchased electronics he couldn’t afford on his salary, and, if this is the case, such details may be worth including. The reverse can also be significant: a top-earning surgeon who religiously clips coupons and lives in a modest apartment while squirrelling away most of her money.
It’s also helpful to consider the routine behaviors of the characters when describing their homes. Does this character always make the bed immediately upon waking? If yes, it may be necessary to know the color and pattern of the bedspread. Or does this character toss their daily stack of mail on the kitchen table when they return home after work, and does this stack of mail accumulate for days until the character opens a single envelope? In the case of a more paranoid and possibly mentally ill character, it may be worth describing how this character checks to ensure her front door is locked at least a dozen times before going to bed.
Lighting is essential to consider when describing a space. It can be helpful to move beyond simple, declarative statements such as “The room was dim and unwelcoming” or “The room was brightly lit and cheerful” and explore the reason behind the room’s inadequate or overdone lighting. If the room is dim, is this because there are no overhead lights and only one lamp with a thirty-watt lightbulb in the corner? Or is there track lighting in the kitchen which overwhelms anyone who stand underneath it for more than an hour?
Another rich area to explore is if there are any items from childhood or other nostalgia-rich items in the character’s home. Knowing that your main character still sleeps with the blanket his Grandma Louisa crocheted for him before he was born opens up a rich subplot option about his relationship with both the blanket and his Grandma Louisa.
Finally, if you remain uncertain how to best describe the homes of your characters, determine what you notice when you visit someone else’s home. Do you immediately look at their bookshelves to see what they read, or do you try to peek inside their refrigerator to see what they eat? Or do you poke around in their medicine cabinet after using the bathroom? These accumulated details, even if they never make it into the story, will help you better understand and describe your character no matter where most of the action of the story unfolds.