What House-Sitting Can Teach You About Writing

What House-Sitting Teaches You About Writing

This post is by Jessica Baverstock.

When it comes to describing our characters’ houses, belongings, and preferences, it’s easy to cut corners. We may write in our personal preference or just the first thing we think of. These descriptions provide insights into your character’s mind. Done well, they can be an excellent opportunity to show instead of tell.

I came to a better understanding of how easily belongings reveal personalities during a recent house-sitting gig. I was referred by a friend so I knew little about the people whose house I’d be inhabiting for a month. As a writer, I reveled in the fun of using my deductive powers to piece together a description of the occupants from their belongings.

Most of the things I learned didn’t require intrusive sleuthing (I didn’t open mail or flick through childhood photo albums). In fact, I could have discovered these details during only a casual visit. Often it’s the simplest things that give the greatest insights.

As a house-sitter, I particularly noticed three specific types of belongings. Following are just a few areas where your character’s choices can reveal a wealth of information.

Your Character’s Books

A person’s choice of reading material often reveals his interests, concerns, and habits. His shelves may be stocked with romance novels, thrillers, or historical fiction, giving you insight into his favorite genres. He may collect a series of books or favor a particular author.

Books on back pain, diet plans, or other medical topics can reveal concerns the person may have. Book choices can also reveal hobbies like birdwatching, woodwork, and knitting. There may be children’s books tucked away in a corner, implying this house receives little visitors from time to time.

A person’s selection of books will be unique to him and will usually tell you his story.

Give it a go: Visit your local library or browse an online bookstore. Choose three books that reveal your main character’s interests.

Your Character’s Knick-Knacks

Anything a person has on display tells you about his values. Photographs are the most obvious example of this. Pictures of holidays, family members, and other events show what this person wants to remember.

Souvenirs also show either places this person has visited or gifts they have received from other travelers (the trick is to tell which ones are which).You can often tell a person’s preference for countries and cultures based on the items he has displayed around his home. Where these items are placed, and how well they are cared for, can provide you clues as to  the memories these objects hold and how highly the person values them.

Give it a go: Describe three items your character has on display in his home. Make sure each item connects somehow to your story or your character’s values.

Your Character’s Food and Cleaning Products

The items a person buys to care for himself and his house can show his mindset on health and the environment. If his shelves are stocked with health food and many items are labeled “low fat” and “low salt,” then you can surmise this person takes his health seriously. If the fridge has leftovers from takeaway meals, then this person may be too busy with other concerns to be thinking about what’s best for his body. Items like gluten-free products reveal dietary restrictions.

Cleaning products are also interesting. Does this person choose the more expensive products that are labeled as environmentally friendly? Or do they have high perfumed products that claim to kill everything? None of these choices are necessarily right or wrong. The point is, what are these choices telling you about your character’s mindset?

Give it a go: The next time you go shopping, make a note of five items your main character would purchase. What goes through your character’s mind when he’s choosing what to buy?

About the Author: Jessica Baverstock is a writer who is fascinated by the creative process. She blogs at Creativity’s Workshop where her creativity writes in purple text. Her latest e-book Creativity on Demand covers how writers can access their creativity whenever and wherever they need inspiration.

Tell me your opinion: What’s your experience with using belongings to describe a character? Can you add to the list?

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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.


  1. You also have to talk about LACK of belongings. In Without A Voice I deliberately chose to go minimalist because this woman is running–she decorates with thrift store furniture and has no knick-knacks. She doesn’t get attached to things because she might have to leave them behind.

  2. @Lauren: What a revealing choice! I hadn’t thought of that aspect to belongings but it does tell you so much about that character. Thank you for mentioning it. 🙂

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jessica!

  4. I went with this minimal setting too when it came to my characters apartment (He’s a wizard P.I.) mostly furnished with what he called “Goodwill chic”. The reception area at his office, is a bit more than that for obvious reasons. Still pretty minimal, but inviting.

    His lab area is a different story. All kinds of tombs of magic, lore and religion are set on a all but falling over bookcase. That’s about it for decoration. The rest is pretty devoid of anything outside a large metal table that serves as his workbench w/ a card table that doubles as a desk.

  5. Excellent points. I have a tendency to describe too little. I focus on actions and dialogue and often even forget to dress my characters.

  6. I always go into my character’s bedroom and have a good look around, paying special attention to what’s tucked in the top closet shelf and under the bed.

  7. Nice. Great thoughts to keep in mind when imagining up a new character. Filing a reminder away now. 😉

  8. @Katie: Thank you for letting me guest post. I’ve enjoyed it so much! 🙂

    @Timm Higgins: I love the term “Goodwill chic,” it’s very descriptive. You’ve done a great job of revealing your character with just a few items!

    @Steve Mathisen: I used to have problems with description as well. I had to force myself to go back and write in description when editing. In the end, I found if I could weave the descriptions directly into character traits then they came much more naturally to me. Hope these reminders help you do the same. 🙂

    @Janie Fox: Great idea! As a little girl, I used to hide away cardboard boxes and other household rubbish under my bed because I was sure I could use them to make something one day. I think you could have a lot of fun seeing what’s under your character’s bed. Thanks for the suggestion!

    @Crystal Collier: Glad you liked the post. 🙂

  9. Great post! In my novel, the female MC goes through the male MC’s medicine cabinet while using his bathroom and sees all the pills he takes to maintain his cool, collected appearance.

    And if you have a character that’s not a reader, DVDs and CDs/iPod playlists work well too.

  10. @ED Martin: Ooh, good point. Your bathroom and medicine cabinet can reveal everything from athlete’s foot to cancer. Movies and music can also show your character’s tastes. Thanks for adding these. I hadn’t thought of them! 🙂

  11. I never thought of using possessions to describe a character. My work-in-progress novel begins with the character getting into a packed car and driving to college. I suppose I could exhibit her possessions once she moves into her dorm room and unpacks. Great article. 🙂

  12. @Josue Light: That sounds like a perfect opportunity to show her possessions! You could also mention any gifts or cards she was given, which could reveal her relationships with family and friends in her home town.

  13. @Lauren you are so right, the lack of belongings can be as equally-or more! important as items the character does have.

  14. Loved your post, Jessica! Don´t know how much I can use it with my WIP since it happens in an imaginary world, but I will take not 😉

  15. @Meryl: Thanks for the comment! 🙂 I would think people in imaginary worlds could still have belongings of some kind, perhaps a trinket with meaning to them personally or a letter written to them by a loved one.

    You could also use favourite smells and sounds to reveal your character’s personality. Perhaps they love the smell of an exotic fruit because it reminds them of someone.

    Imaginary worlds open up many possibilities. 😉

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