Put your Characters in their Place

by Darlene Cah

Let’s take a tour of my living room in this moment. Yes, you should be afraid! The walls are a dark-ish green with a lighter green accent wall along the entryway. The floors are hardwood in a medium-light honey color. There’s a gas fireplace with a brick façade wedged into one corner. In another corner, a six-foot cat “condo.” On top of the fireplace, I have dozens of photos of family and pets, odd dog and horse knick-knacks, a small Crucifix, horsehead book ends, candles, burned stubs of incense, a small mirror, horse show ribbons, Christmas decorations (seriously!), a poetry award certificate and, well…dust. On the floor are stacks of books, old issues of Poets & Writers, tufts of dog and cat hair and a horse show trophy. In front of the large windows that look out onto the porch and into the woods is a round dog bed on a carpet remnant. The sofa and loveseat are tan, overstuffed and worn. The recliner, a gift from friends when I got out of the hospital last year, is the most comfortable chair in the space. My cats agree. Broader in scope, my house is in the United States, in the rural south.

Aside from my tendency toward clutter and my refusal to vacuum every hour, thanks to profusely shedding pets, this space, real or fictionalized, could tell many stories—some funny, some eccentric, some sad. As our own homes reveal a lot about us and our lives, the environments we create for our characters give readers insight into their personalities, motivations, passions and much more. Plus, giving your characters a solid sense of place, whether it’s one room or a city, will ground your story. I don’t mean you should write pages and pages of description. You want your readers to have the satisfaction of visualizing your scene. A simple, well-placed object often tells as much as a lengthy paragraph. For example, my old issues of Poets & Writers on the floor says:

  1. I’m a writer
  2. I don’t have bookcases
  3. I find it hard to get rid of my magazines, and I may have an emotional attachment to them.

If I were to add that many pages of these back issues are tabbed with pink and yellow Post-its, you might also assume I don’t have time to get through the entire issue when I receive it, and I intend, not always successfully, to go back and read certain articles at some point.

I like to see the scenery my characters occupy, with all its details then let them loose to interact with it. So, whether your character loves his environment or hates it, allow him get emotional about it. When I write, I put myself in my character’s shoes, in her skin, in her heart and soul. I want to feel what she feels about her surroundings. Does Ellen float in her pool in the Hamptons, taking this luxury for granted? Does Wayne feel guilty rummaging through the closet, then holding the money he stole from his wife to embark on a get-rich-quick scheme? Does Vera stand on her weathered porch, afraid to open the electric bill, knowing she has only $15 in her checking account? Why does Myra have word-search puzzles scattered around her kitchen that hasn’t been updated since the 70s?

For some fun exercises on creating a sense of place taught by Wiley Cash, take a look at my previous post The Hub City Writing in Place Experience.

Then take a tour of your own house or apartment. Pick a room and observe it objectively. If you put a character in that room what would some of the details reveal about that character? How would your character feel about his or her surroundings? Share your thoughts!

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