How to Illustrate Characters Through Their Surroundings

One of my favorite parts of watching a movie is the opportunity to spy on the characters’ familiar surroundings. Their homes, their bedrooms, and their offices all present wonderful insights into personality. The visual medium of film allows for all kinds of details to be included, some so minuscule or subtle most viewers probably won’t even notice them. Of course, authors can’t go to quite that same extreme without boring readers with a grocery list of description. But you can still use your characters’ surroundings to help readers understand them in a more intimate way.

In her debut novel Adam Bede, George Eliot introduced readers to a farming family by first introducing their home. She gives the broad overview of the house, then zooms in on details such as fleeces and empty corn bags stacked in the corners and a child’s doll lying on the floor.

Adam Bede (1991), BBC.

Before we meet even one member of the family, Eliot already allows us to form an accurate opinion about them simply by showing us where they live, how they care for their possessions, and which items they treasure.

Although you should be careful not to overdo descriptions, be aware of this technique and be willing to put it into practice. If your story allows, stage at least one scene in your character’s personal surroundings. Sketch the setting briefly when the characters first enter it, then scatter important details throughout the scene.

Ask yourself:

  • Is your character sloppy or neat?
  • Rich or poor?
  • Can readers tell interests or hobbies from the items on display?
  • Are there any clues to backstory or dreams for the future?

The possibilities are endless and easily unleashed.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you show the details of your characters personal surroundings? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Yes, I do describe the setting. I think it’s very important for the readers’ understanding of the character. That being said, I usually only write two or three sentences at the beginning of the scene and sprinkle more in later, keeping the reader grounded. Great post.

  2. That’s one difficulty of writing a naval story – the setting is limited for most of the novel! In line with what you were saying about the surroundings, I find that the clothing a character wears also says a lot about what kind of person he or she is. There are a lot of little things authors can use to give their characters depth.

  3. That’s an interesting way to think about it–setting is a huge part of my book (starts in Spain, then proceeds to Jamaica, Antigua, and Rhode Island area) but the MC has no personal space of her own. She’s constantly being moved around and has no real place to anchor. But the other characters that she interacts with, setting definitely reflects their personal style and attitudes.

  4. @Annie: Sounds like you’re doing it just right. If you can set the stage at the beginning to help readers visualize the scene, then work in the details as you go, you rarely run into difficulties with too much description.

    @Abigail: Limited settings are often even richer than large ones, simply because they give us more opportunity to explore them in depth. If your characters are on a ship for the majority of the story, you’ll be able to flesh out the setting in every chapter, until it becomes almost a character in its own right.

    @Angelica: As Abigail pointed out, sometimes part of this “setting” is what the character carries with himself, in his clothing, his pockets, etc. Also, we can discover interesting things about him by watching how he reacts to other characters’ personal surroundings.

  5. I hope I’ve managed to portray that in my stories. In my straight-mystery, the reader spends a lot of the time at my MC’s home. She likes things tidy and organized, yet she’s always misplacing her gun!

  6. Love it! That’s a great quirk. And I seem to remember you being able to pack a lot of details into a brief amount of space.

  7. I hope I’ve managed to portray Joe’s family as poor by planting little details like his father’s rusty pickup in the driveway, and with faded wallpaper and worn carpet in the living room. Joe’s a slob. His bed is unmade and there is a stack of books beside his chair (instead of in a bookcase).

  8. Despite the fact that I’m a neatnik myself, I have to admit that I love sloppy characters. They’re just so much more interesting!

  9. Yes I do. Because a) It grounds the reader in my story and b) what the character notices and how he/she does it shows the reader a lot about the character.

    🙂

  10. You’ve got it exactly. This technique is a wonderful way to *show* readers your character’s personality, without needing to spell things outright.

  11. Great points! I tend not to pay enough to setting, so thanks for the reminder that it can be a great tool for characterization. 🙂

  12. I love utilizing setting details to evoke both an opinion and a tone for scenes. My original problem was to focus so much on that construction that it was almost a burden to read even though you were still sucked into the story. Through time and experience I’ve come to have a nice balance of constructs (showing) and following the narrative.

  13. Something must be in the air, because my posts for today & yesterday are on this subject, illustrated by the HarryPotter movies and books. Saw this on twitter & ran right over.
    What I see with characters’ development is choices afforded them by their settings. You could drop a princess in a farm setting and have fun with her coping skills and adaptability, or release a prisoner (eg:HP under the stairs) and experience his freedoms and giddiness while out in the ‘wild world’.
    What do they have to give up? What becomes their dearest possession? How do they adapt and cope? What do they learn to value in themselves, in others?
    It’s excellent exercise, even if it does end up on the editing floor. Gives depth and reasons for reactions.
    Thank you for this!

  14. @Linda: Setting is often the neglected stepchild of fiction. We can get away with hardly any setting description – and so we often do. But a vivid setting can bring so many new elements to a story.

    @PW: Balance is the key to good storytelling in pretty much every aspect. It’s also a constant juggling act, because what balances one scene won’t necessarily balance the next.

    @Pamela: Yes! I love the idea of using personal setting as an exercise. It’s a great – and fun – way to learn important things about our characters.

  15. this is a FANTASTIC tip. I love it. Thanks, KM! :o) <3

  16. Thanks for stopping by! Glad the post was helpful.

  17. That was another very useful post, thanks.

    This was my worst fault when I started. I would charge into the action leaving the reader with no idea where we were. Then I had a professional crit done on some of the early Jane.

    I learned that all the reader needs is a few hints to get the right general idea.

    Later that evening there was a polite tap on Jane’s cabin door.
    ‘Who is it?’
    ‘Eva.’
    ‘Come in, would you like a drink? Coffee?’
    Eva shuffled into the room. Jane took her by the hand and led her to the best of the three chairs. Eva sat, staring out of the curved window, unwilling or unable to meet Jane’s eyes.
    ‘N—Nothing thanks,’ she stammered, and began to fiddle with the hem of her threadbare red skirt.
    ‘Come on,’ said Jane, ‘I don’t bite, at least not people who don’t deserve to be bitten.’
    Eva smiled. ‘Coffee then, if you have some. I don’t see any cups or anything.’
    Jane opened one of the lockers built against the curve of the wall. ‘Force of habit, my ship accelerates a lot harder than the Consort.’ She took out a small filter coffee machine and two plastic tubes. ‘If I left something like this,’ she pulled the jug out of the coffee machine and went to fill it in the bathroom, ‘on the galley worktop, and then opened the throttles, I’d find it in small pieces against the engine room bulkhead. You learn to be tidy in an eighty-footer.’ She poured water into the machine, and plugged it in.

    The clues are that the room contains three chairs (we already know it has a bed) which gives us a sense of size. One of the chairs is “best”, implying some comfort. Tidiness implies Jane’s disciplined life as an officer, the en-suite bathroom gives us more of the size and comfort. We also get a hint that behind the steely, efficient Jane there is a sensuous woman who indulges in pleasures such as good coffee, and is prepared to share them with friends, which implies that she is generous. At the same time we get hints of Eva’s relative poverty and chaotic life.

    Just for contrast, this is the first person Jane meets on Earth:

    The man paused for a while, and removed his battered straw hat so that he could scratch his head. ‘Deep Space,’ he said slowly, ‘I thought y’all were airforce when I saw ya coming down.’ He looked long and hard at the insignia on the tail of the battered spaceship. ‘Jay-zus,’ he said slowly, ‘that’s the old cross of stars, ain’t it? The Arc-too-ree-ayin Space Fleet?’
    Jane nodded. ‘I’m Lieutenant Jane Gould, Arcturian Confederate Space Fleet.’ She stressed the word “Confederate” slightly; even after a millennium, a race memory of the civil war lingered in some places, and it never hurt to be on the right side. She watched, fascinated, as the man’s mental gears clicked through surprise, fear and cunning, finally crashing into greed, each change reflected in his wonderfully expressive face. Whatever he said next was going to be a lie—possibly a useful one.
    ‘Y’all don’t want a purtey little thing like you stayin’ out here, I’ll take you someplace safe. Git in the truck.’
    ‘But-’
    ‘Lady, once the STA hear that there’s an Arc-too-ree-ayin spaceship crashed here, they’re going to come looking for y’all with shotguns.’
    ‘STA?’
    ‘Sons of True America. Now are y’all going to git in the truck?’
    Jane walked around the truck and pulled the passenger door open. Something large and black snarled at her.
    ‘Ya don’t want to pay no mind to him,’ said the man, then turning to the dog, ‘Frank, ya evil hound, git in the back and let the li’l lady have the seat.’
    Frank snarled once more for good measure, then reluctantly clambered into the back of the truck.
    As Jane sat down among the litter of food wrappers and empty beer tubes the man said, ‘That’s better, now loo-tenant, or may I call you Jane?’

    I don’t think I need to explain this one.

  18. Not just how you describe the spaces that the character has some control over, but how you describe the spaces the character moves through, can illuminate a character’

    I wrote a post on that a while back:

    https://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/2019/08/24/smash-the-mirror/

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