You can characterize your hero without the reader ever seeing him.

“The boat was beyond dilapidated, with sheet metal welded over rusted-out walls and deck, ancient tar-stained rope, still usable but feathered with age, holding it to the pier. On the aft deck, two old plastic-loop folding lounge chairs took up most of the space, a small plastic barrel between them clearly intended for drink holding, and an Igloo cooler greyed with age sat askew to the side. The windows to the living quarters were mostly covered with aluminum foil, and the belowdecks door stood open, a gaping mouth to a dark, quiet interior.

“In spite of this, the boat was quite seaworthy, its smooth sides free of barnacles and algae, the small pilot’s area clearly visible through spotless glass. It bobbed cleanly in the water, as if it were anxious to get moving.”

***

“Unlike the rest of the home, the large walk-in closet was absolutely pristine. The first thing you noticed was the thick, plush white carpet, not new but very well maintained. Rows of rods and drawers held perfectly-spaced sweaters, blouses, pants, and dresses, and a number of designer-quality evening gowns peeped through a slender glass door in the back. A rotating rack displayed shoes, heels flirtatiously out, arranged by use: sneakers, casuals, kittens, spikes, huaraches, and a tall row of boots in shallow top cubbies. The piece de resistance, however, was the vanity. It spread wide in the center of the closet, U-shaped with a dainty stool tucked beneath. Six rows of drawers held a wide variety of cosmetics and hair styling implements neatly organized and at the ready, and rows of professional-level lights surrounded the crystal mirror in the center. Along the top, bottles of perfume, brushes of many descriptions, and two magnifying mirrors created a lovely and colorful display.”

What can you tell about these two characters from the description of their homes, their dens? Quite a lot.

We really do live in a material world, and we are very much defined by our things. Remember the schtick behind the Odd Couple? One was super-neat and the other a slob. With that single conflict, an entire classic trope was born. And while there was a personality clash, most of the characterization – and conflict – came from the surroundings, the characters’ narrative habitat.

Surroundings

We all live in very different places: our bedroom, bath, office, kitchen, den, garage, closet, desk, pockets/wallet/purse/briefcase, car, front/back yard, vacation home and vehicles. We choose to live in different ways; one might live with elderly parents, either through financial necessity or a need to care for the parents. Or one might live in a 70s-vintage split-level home in the suburbs, lovingly restored to its original Brady Bunch atmosphere. Or a boat, out of a car, in a tent, in a castle, in an isolated log cabin. Characters are forced to live in habitats that are alien to them – a bankrupt Wall Street whiz, forced to live out of her car, or, as in The Princess Diaries, a young woman raised in an urban bohemian household suddenly elevated to European royalty living in a castle. Others may live in habitats that are ideal, like Bilbo Baggins in his comfortable hobbit hole, nostalgic throughout the book for bacon and eggs.

My character from the first example above lives on a repurposed fishing boat, using disposable dishware and buying all her clothes secondhand. She is damaged; trauma has left her unable to be comfortable and at home anywhere, and she is ready to flee at any moment. In a very real way, she barely exists. (Imagine her surprise when she finds herself essentially adopted by a very large extended family who exist in a more real and permanent way than anyone else on earth!)

Inserting Conflict Through Surroundings

Surroundings are ideal for creating character conflict. The Hobbit, for instance, starts by describing a hobbit hole – first, what it is not and second, what it is – and then puts Bilbo into all those things a hobbit hole is not: dry, bare, sandy places with nothing to sit down upon or to eat, and then, in the Misty Mountains, a nasty, dirty wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, or something like that – the underground lair of the Elven King, the cavelike canopy of Mirkwood, and at last the horrible bone- and treasure-filled stronghold of Smaug. All the places Bilbo adventured in were antithetical to his warm, snug, comfortable “little” hobbit hole, and he very often contrasted them, regretting leaving home even as he soldiered on.

Try inverting it. A character from a terrible home – drug-addicted parents, poverty, a house falling down around his childish ears – goes to college and works hard, creating a wonderful home for herself and her family but always haunted by the memory of the insecurity of her childhood home. Then she is thrust into a traumatic civil war, a situation in which she loses that warm home she has created and thrust right back into dirt and cold and pain. Or a character rebels against the warm, loving home of his parents to seek a footloose life, joining the Merchant Marines first, then embarking on a life as a trucker, living in his truck cab. And he meets a girl, a hometown homebody whose dream is to put down roots with a man and grow old together.

You could give your character a spotlessly neat desk and office and a messy home – indicating that the office is where he exists most fully, and it’s important to keep that part of his life in order while the rest of his life is for relaxing. Or he could live deep in the woods in an unkempt home and overgrown yard, but keep his wardrobe and car – the things that go out into the world with him – spotless, indicating that he is a character who cares about social appearances.

Or she could be an all-around anal person, keeping everything in perfect order, losing her temper when anything is out of place. This could be hell for a normal child whose instinct is to drop everything right where he is, or it could be a tendency tempered by falling in love with a happily absent-minded slob, providing conflict in the romance.

Specific Detail

Other than understanding how your character would interact with his native habitat, the most important element here is specific detail. You can say “Paul had a sloppy and unkempt home.” Or you can say,

“The buzzing of the flies kept Al awake as he tossed and turned on the lumpy, smelly couch. It must have been months since Paul had bothered to wash a dish, and he wasn’t all that good about throwing out leftover food either. At last, he got up and started cleaning the kitchen, gaining momentum as he tore through the piles, starting with the still-red spaghetti sauce pot through the coffee mugs with greenish slime growing in them, and finally to the pots at the bottom that had composted to the point that he was surprised not to find corn sprouting. When Paul came downstairs, scratching his black-haired bellybutton just under his shorts, he was greeted with a sort of dull shine, a hollow echo, and the smell of bacon.”

Writing programs are likely to tell you to provide specific detail in nearly every instance (that’s part of why literary fiction moves so slowly.) However, you should provide specific detail ONLY when it’s important to the story. If Al’s taste for cleanliness turns out to be critical to the story, then the specific detail adds tension and color to the story. If Al is spending only a single night there and you want to focus on other elements in the story – say, a phone call to the wife who threw him out, or a meeting with a police officer to discuss living in a safe house – then the shorter, less-detailed description is fine.

***

Exercise: Choose three habitats the character of your work in progress lives in. Write a short paragraph detailing those habitats. Keep in mind the relative importance your character assigns each habitat. Don’t be afraid of authenticity. Focus on telling the truth about your character through his surroundings, especially the things he avoids telling others. These little things make him human.

 

Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance

Part 7: Nine-and-Sixty Ways: When Writing Advice Conflicts

Part 8: Characterization 101: Characterizing Through Dialog

Part 9: Doing Dialect Right

Part 10: Beats, Said, and Quipped: Who’s Talking?

Part 11: Scene & Sequel: Thickening the Plot

Part 12: Characterization 101: Characterizing Through Action

Part 13: Building an Audience While Writing Politically Charged Fiction