Time for another look at character development. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that we’ve discussed this more than any other subject at MW (this will be my fourth time in recent months), and that’s with good reason. Without good character development, the rest is a bit pointless. Good characters are what invest the reader in the story, and if the reader isn’t invested in the story, then anything else you’ve put in there doesn’t get read. Now there are examples of great stories without much in the way of character (can’t think of any offhand, but I know they’re out there); however, these are the exceptions. So, today we explore character development through location.
As with other methods I’ve discussed (character through plot, flashbacks, and magic systems), you can use more than just the character to display depth and emotion. In this case, we’re talking about the location a scene is in and how it relates to a character. Let’s start with a basic example.
Jack opened his bedroom door, shoved aside a mound of dirty clothes, kicked over a half-eaten sandwich, and flopped onto his bed, sending dust plumes into the air.
This sentence describes the location of the scene — Jack’s bedroom. But it also describes Jack. With no further information, the reader is already painting a picture to match the information given. For example, I doubt anyone reading this sentence pictured Jack to be wearing a tuxedo. In fact, because his one action was that he flopped onto his bed, I suspect most people pictured Jack to be as casual and messy as his room. By showing a character’s behavior in a location, the reader builds information about the character — in other words, character development. This can work in a contrasting way as well.
Jack opened his bedroom door, pushed aside a mound of dirty clothes, nudged over a half-eaten sandwich, and turned his nose at the idea of sitting on the dusty bed.
Same room + different reaction = different Jack. Readers now see somebody far more prim — not only is he disgusted at the slovenly room, but he turned his nose which makes Jack sound a bit stiff. Also the way he interacts with the location, pushing and nudging (instead of the original shoving and kicking) as if he didn’t want to touch anything, adds to his character. As Faith has pointed out, sentences that accomplish more than one thing are great. Here we get both location description and character development. Furthermore, in the second example, we get a little conflict and a possible plot question — If Jack is so disgusted, why is his bedroom in this condition? All in one sentence!
So far, so good. But character development through location can go far beyond simple reactions to and interactions with surroundings. You can actually use the language of describing a location to develop character.
Jack slammed open his black bedroom door with a skull painted in the middle. The knob bashed against a jagged hole in the wall — his version of a door stopper. He kicked aside a mound of blood-stained clothes, smelled the rotting sandwich on the splintered floor, and collapsed on his bed. Plumes of dust exploded around him.
This paragraph gives us a lot about Jack. Like before, we get an image of him from the condition of the room, but we also see that he is very angry and probably poor. All because of the word choices in describing the room. His actions (slammed, kicked, smelled, collapsed) are not that strong — the worst being slammed — and while they aid in the character development, it is the room itself that completes the picture. The obvious change to the door, now black and dressed with a skull, instantly creates images of age and attitude. Describing how the doorknob bashes into a hole that’s been there for some time makes his door slamming become violent. Noting that he lacks something as simple as a doorstop is a subtle indication that he lacks money — readers won’t consciously pick-up on this but it will add to the overall effect when combined with other signs of poverty. The blood-stains on the clothes suggest violence (and get the plot questions popping in a reader’s mind). In describing the floor, the word splintered works in several ways — it continues the violent sounds to the description, it suggests a lack of upkeep, and it paints a picture of either poverty or, at least, being not that well off. Finally, describing how the dust explodes around Jack completes the images of violence and poor upkeep. A reader will come away from this thinking Jack is a young, angry and possibly dangerous fellow who doesn’t care about his home and is probably not financially well off.
And here’s even further proof that you can create characters through describing a location. I never describe anything about how Jack looks, what he wears, anything at all, but I suspect most readers already have a defined image of Jack. Furthermore, I suspect most readers have an image that is similar — not the same, but similar. Nobody gave Jack a monocle. Nobody painted a joyous smile on his face. A lot of people put him in jeans. Some chose army surplus. Others may have gone for a more punkish look. Regardless of the specifics, the clothes were certainly what the reader saw as tough and threatening.
If you can create this much with so little, imagine what you can create given an entire story. As a writer, you can utilize this method along with the others we’ve discussed here at MW to guide your readers into seeing the character you want to develop. It’s all in the words.