Thursday, April 10, 2014

Establishing Character

Last month, I got together with a big group of friends. We’re all writers of one kind or another and you couldn’t ask for a better convergence of personalities. We meet at various houses, supposedly for lunch, but it goes beyond that since “lunch” usually lasts around 3 or 4 hours.

We gathered at a perfect house. Not a humongous house like those around a country club. Not a cozy lake house overlooking Lake Travis. The house was perfect because it so very much reflects the owner. It’s bright; it’s funky; it’s elegant; it’s colorful; it’s warm; it’s inviting. It’s HER. You could be blindfolded, taken to this house, and when you saw it, you’d know whose home you were at.

 Now that’s something to keep in mind when you’re establishing character. The character’s home tells a lot about that person. It’s not black or white. It tells you about the character. Also keep in mind that every character’s home, office, car, etc. doesn’t have to match your tastes. They should match the tastes and lifestyle of the character and his/her personality. Even more than that, they should reflect the character; they should be an extension of the character.

 The reader should be able to enter their home and learn more about the character than what’s been told to them. Yes, as someone said, it’s all in the details. But for you to use the environment to establish character, you don’t have to have a lot of details. The room doesn’t have to be described ad nauseum. One or two things will tell the reader more than you could describe in a page. Like the delicate, porcelain, hooting owl on the coffee table. Or the twirling, kicking, pom-pom Barbie on the bookshelf.

 Or the blue and yellow office with the upside-down shelves on the ceiling. (My office.)

Helen Ginger
is an author and blogger. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out in Spring 2014.


  1. How right you are, Helen. I have often used dwellings to efficiently convey character while also anchoring the reader in the setting. Karl Lustig's Back Bay apartment (in Bashert), with it's entry hall lined with books in strict alphabetical order, is both a place and a reflection of personality.

  2. Good idea. I've been trying to think of other ways to establish character and while I possibly may have used this form of describing a character without realising, I think it's something I should use more often.

    Thank you for that.

  3. Excellent post, Helen. I hadn't thought of revealing a character's personality in exactly this way (although I've done it without thinking consciously about it at times), but of course it works beautifully. It also provides a valuable visual for your readers, a mental picture that makes your character and scene more real, more "touchable."

    1. One more thought...getting together with fellow writers brings wonderful perks unique to our craft. What fun "lunches" you must have, Helen! :-)

  4. You are making me think--good thing--about my current WIP and if I have done any of that! I think I might just go back and add in.

  5. Those interesting, quirky little things in a setting do help make the characters memorable, and we do want our characters to be memorable, right? :-) I will never think of you again, Helen, without picturing those shelves. :-)

  6. Helen, that's assuming my readers aren't like moi ... I'll return from visiting a place and my wife will say, "Didn't you think that Queen Anne couch was perfect for the Hodges' living room?" To which my reply is, "Huh?"

  7. I so agree, both with making sure your characters don't live in your home, and keeping the description to a minimum. That's especially important for me, because I write in deep POV, and who actually thinks about those details when in their own home. It's familiar to the point of being invisible. But showing the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine sitting on top of Dirt Rider magazine will show your readers a lot about the character.

  8. Small touches can illustrate a character better than a paragraph of info dump. Sleuths learn alot about victims when they visit their homes. That said, Christopher has a valid point. Not all characters, male or female, are going to notice all the fine points of the house. Writers are good at it, but all of your characters won't be writers. It would be better to pick out items of special interest to your character to comment on (collectible baseballs, vintage vases) or things that make them crazy (clutter, a living room desecrated with a pool table). It stands out when the author drops in to describe setting from his/her POV rather than the character's.

  9. People can tell a writer is in my house, since my desk is right smack in the dining room.

  10. It's the little details that tell the most. As the old saying goes, "Less is more."

  11. I love the Old West time period. My home decorations reflect that.


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