Imagine inviting us into your protagonist’s house or whatever you deem to be their most sacred physical space. But while we’re so excited to meet your protagonist, they’re not actually there. We can’t hear what they say or observe the way they move in order to get to know them. Or can we?
Now imagine that you’ve asked us to become a detective in their space. To piece together who your character is based upon what our senses tell us through clues. We’ve been asked to figure out who your character is without ever meeting them. Is this even possible?
In our own writing, we’re most effective when we set up “crime scenes” for our readers and invite them in to snoop around. The more we let the reader’s senses process the story world, the more they engage. The more they work. The more they get the satisfaction of knowing your character with greater precision and depth. In turn, this tricks them into feeling like they’re physically inside the story and into feeling they know your character on a deeper level.
Consider the two examples below. As you read them, feel out which one draws you in more as a reader:
Greg loves the beach.
Greg’s kitchen cupboard is overstuffed with brightly-colored margarita glasses. Some are hand-painted with palm trees and beach umbrellas and little flip-flops, while others have words printed along the rim. Places like Destin, Myrtle Beach, and Emerald Isle.
Chances are, you felt reeled in more by the second example. Why? Well, because the first one told you about Greg. It outright explained him as a character to you and asked you to take it at face value. There wasn’t any room for you to work. To deduce. To decide who Greg is on your own. The fact was served up cold, and this creates distance between you and the writing. Furthermore, you’re not left with any understanding of the size and scope of Greg’s love for the beach.
Whereas in the second example, you became a detective. Greg’s collection of glasses gives you a sense for just how much he craves that feeling of being on the beach with a margarita in his hand. It tells you not just that he has a lot of glasses, but leaves you room to deduce how much the beach appeals to him and how he probably yearns to be there now. So we don’t just walk away knowing this fact that he likes the beach, we know Greg on a deeper level because our senses have processed clues.
Now, it’s important to note that while offering these physical clues is much more inviting for your reader, there’s actually room to take things up a notch. We’ll break our own rule for a moment and let Greg slip into the scene so we can see what he does with that cupboard of glasses.
Greg’s hand wavers back and forth inside the cupboard packed with margarita glasses. He grins with a distant look in his eyes and carefully pulls one out. “Emerald Isle” is printed along the rim.
Notice how we’ve moved from the efficacy of that second example (Greg adores the beach, has clearly been to many of them, and doesn’t mind annoyingly cheery colors) into an even deeper level of Greg’s characterization. His movement now conveys his emotions both in this moment and as it seems to pertain to a memory. He handles the glass carefully—that tells us about his emotions toward the glass itself, the beach, and the memory. We’re invited in even further to wonder why he’s chosen the Emerald Isle glass in this exact moment, which propels us forward with curiosity in the story.
The takeaway? Physical description of your character’s space + movement is the best way of all to reveal your character to the reader. Rather than pausing the story to describe the setting or who your character is, we employ our readers much more like detectives when we let them put physical detail and character movement together.
Still, for the sake of exploring and getting the most out of the setting, it helps to scoot your character out of their spaces so they can’t grab control and outright tell us who they are or how they feel.
Here are sensory-based prompts you can address to help us get to know who your character is before you invite them back into the scene to interact with those spaces:
What does the style of the furniture in your character’s home (or even just their bedroom if it’s a younger character) say about who they are as a person? Is it modern, farmhouse style, antique, beat-up, hand-me-down furniture?
How is the furniture arranged? Is it in a way that reflects their tendencies toward being open, closed-off, organized, or chaotic? Intentional or haphazard?
What sorts of objects tell us about the way they spend their time? Are there tools or equipment that reflect their hobbies? Memories they hold dear? Whose pictures are posted, if any? Keepsakes from events they’ve attended or greeting cards from specific loved ones?
Are there patterns on things like bedding or clothing that reveal a deeper tendency toward something?
What colors dominate their decorations or functional items (cups, towels, bedding, etc.)? How do those colors reflect their propensity toward certain moods?
What’s hiding in the back of their closet? Their drawers? What’s shoved far beneath their bed?
How is the lighting? What does this show about their comforts or their fears?
What sorts of linens have they chosen for bedding? Window dressings? Pillows or throw blankets? Rugs? What might those textures let us glean about their personality? Are linens smooth and crisp, or wrinkly?
What sorts of fabrics dominate their cache of clothing? What do we feel when we open dresser drawers or run our hands through your character’s closet? How do the textures of each of these reflect their need for or rejection of comfort?
If we run our fingers along surfaces, which ones have gathered dust and how does that reflect avoidance or neglect for certain aspects of their life? Which ones are spotless to reveal care and a desire to maintain?
What sorts of music or sounds drift through their spaces? How does that music or certain sounds reflect their personality or the way they have sentimental attachment to something? Do the auditory clues change depending on which space we’re in?
Are their windows open or closed to the outside world?
Are there objects that suggest auditory preferences (ear plugs, headphones, earbuds, instruments, white-noise machines, etc.)?
What does the range of their music collection tell us about their range of moods?
What size or how many speakers are around their home? What does that suggest about their reliance upon music and sound in processing emotions?
What are the scents in the different spaces where they spend time? How might those tell us something more about their interests or what they value?
Are they utilizing diffusers, candles, or plug-in scent items to evoke mood? To cover up something?
How does scent reflect the amount of time your character spends in their sacred space(s)?
Are the scents suggestive of memories or favorite times of year? Favorite places (e.g. tropical candles might suggest a preference for summer and beach getaways)?
If we open the kitchen cupboards, refrigerator, or the medicine cabinet, are there items that reveal your character’s lifestyle choices to us? Their cultural background? Their financial means?
How do the foods we see suggest a tendency toward snacking versus eating full meals? Having time to cook or relying on conveniences?
What sorts of food wrappers or food waste are sitting in the trash can?
How does the volume of food on hand suggest their outlook on life?
Are items in the fridge expired? Organized?
Again, as shown in that third example above, all of these clue-based details are best mixed with action. Nothing drops the tension faster than the narrator pausing to tell us what a character is wearing or what the character’s bedroom looks like. The most effective descriptions are woven together with movement. The more you concoct the facets of your character’s spaces with intention, the more your reader steps in like a detective, working through your clues and getting to know your character on the deepest levels.
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Marissa below.