Writing — Character Development via Location

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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.

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16 comments to Writing — Character Development via Location

  • Great point, Stuart, and a fine solution to the dreaded character exposition page or inserts a running commentary on what the character thinks about everything. This is much more subtle and economical.

  • Unicorn

    I like it! Your example demonstrates beautifully how extensively this tool really can be used. I’m already forming ideas as to the sort of story Jack would have. To a certain extent I’ve almost sub-consciously used this technique in my own writings, but being aware of it will help me to use it much more effectively. At exactly the right time, too, when I’m starting a new novel and trying to introduce the characters without an info dump. Thanks for the post.
    Unicorn

  • AJ — Thanks. Along the same lines as your comment, another thing I like about this approach is that you keep the reader in the moment without having to break out for character development. For me, keeping the reader in scene is very important.

    Unicorn — A lot of the techniques we describe, most writers use subconsciously — especially if they’re good readers. But being conscious of the technique means you can use it like a tool and not just when it happens to come out of you. Good luck with your new novel.

  • Thanks much, this really helps me think more purposefully. After a month of NaNoWriMo, purpose of any sort beyond getting my word count is very welcome!

  • Stuart, this is great stuff. I love it when descriptions work double duty as characterization. I’ve been struggling to work this into my own writing, but I see now how effective it can be. I’ll have to concentrate on each specific word.

  • True about us completing the picture. In my mind’s eye, the third Jack had a nose ring and a messy goatee.

    Thank you for this, Stuart. Description is something I feel I have trouble with sometimes, but this really gives me a new perspective.

  • bill — Writing with purpose is one of the big things that separates writers from the wannabes. I’d hate to think that NaNoWriMo is about nothing more than getting word count in, but I’m sure at times it gets to be like that. Indeed, when writing a novel, there are days where it feels like that. :)

    NewGuyDave — Absolutely. The more care you put into your word choice, the better off your writing will be. You don’t need to anguish over it to the point of immobility, but putting some thought into it (or as bill said — some purpose) goes a long way.

    Moira — Glad to hear this post helps. And I love the nose ring! Great detail.

  • Stuart, this was a delicious post!
    I saw Jack #1 as 13, gangly, with red hair (don’t ask why. I don’t know) and stinky socks. (Hey. I had younger brothers who went through this stage.)

    Jack #2 was much more complex. I saw an older (17?) young man, who had been away to military school. Who came home a different person.

    Jack #3 wasn’t sent to military school. He stayed in the broken environment, and now is wounded in soul and body. Greasy black hair (dyed goth?) black T and jeans (baggy with weed and rolling paper in the pockets?). He’s making ends meet selling a little product, doing the odd job. Angry. Ready to explode.

    Like I said. Delicious! So much there for the movie in my mind.

  • Faith — Delicious…what a wonderful word to describe this. Thanks! You’re comment brings to mind that the more detailed the description of the room, the more detailed your vision of this kid became. Just a little food for thought (delicious food, I hope).

  • Stuart> Cool post. I pictured Jack as a brunette, too long bangs getting in his way, and skinny, gangly like Faith did. Hrm. One could do an interesting study where any one of those descriptions was handed to a bunch of differetn people, and then they were asked to describe Jack. I wonder if researchers would find that certain images are linked so that lots of folks would produce the same picture. It makes me think about some of my own characters’ places.

  • This is wonderful, Stuart. One of the things I so admire about your posts on these issues is the economy with which you accomplish so much. Your descriptions are tight and effective while still managing to work on so many levels. Just incredible. These are skills I wish I had.

  • pea — I think a lot of people do equate certain images with certain character traits, but it is culturally bias. For example, the sound of a police siren can mean both rescue and trouble depending on the culture you grew up in. So, understanding your intended audience is crucial in these matters.

    David — Thanks for the kind words. As I wrote in an earlier comment, I do think we all possess these skills (even you!). And I’d guess you’re more aware of it than you realize, you just don’t think of it in the same terms. But when you start making word choices to describe a character or scene or what-have-you, you aren’t arbitrary about it. Those deliberate choices are what this is all about. So don’t sell yourself short! :) But I guess I’ll learn the truth when we work on our short story together — Mwa Ha Haaaaaa!!!! 😉

  • Stuart, you and David are writing a story together? I must have missed this news!

  • JM — David’s mentioned it in passing on the site. Like the How-To book, it’s one part of several surprises MW has planned for the coming year. So, for now, think of it as a teaser coming attraction! 😉

  • One of the many things, the idea that this character lives in this environment, yet sees his dirty and grim world in completely different ways simply and effectively builds a lot of the world, and even the story, in which this character lives, For instance, I took from the first description of Jack that he lived in a modest home, but took for granted his living space, his corner of this world, and lived like he was less than his environment might produce. But, from the two other Jacks, I came to see the world in which both versions come from as if he came from “the wrong side of the tracks,” from an urban neighborhood. This, to me, built up a world in which a story lived and Jack in it.

    I really enjoyed this, and plan on sticking it in my writer’s tool set. Thank you, Stuart,

  • jMichael — Of all the different ways you can develop a character, I find this to be among the most effective and, if done right, subtle. It’s not always an easy tool to use, but having it at your disposal may prove invaluable. Good luck!