Photo by Erin Penn (2013)
Scenery, especially personal spaces, can give a great deal of insight to a character. While easiest to see in movies, like the mural in Uncle Ben’s house in Star Wars and Andy’s bedroom in Toy Story, what a person surrounds themselves with at home, in a garden, in a car, or on vacation can fill in the blanks on how a person may be feeling or her history, even when the person is not the focus of a first-person or close third-person narrative.
Many writers focus on physical and clothing descriptions, but stop describing a room beyond, say, the paint on the walls. These descriptions combine with dialogue, inner thoughts, and landscape description, sweeping the story through strong and hard without ever letting us know who the people other than the main character truly are.
In Home Cooking Part 1, Troy studies Mrs. Carter’s apartment to learn a bit about her. The spoken dialogue reveals only what she presents to the world and who she was before illness took her: a strong-willed woman, older, southern. The worn out apartment tells of a life without money, no husband as support even though she uses “Mrs.”, a throw hiding the worst of the damage to a sofa, and, most damning, the one button on her remote control completely worn out – not on/off, or a preprogrammed channel, but search. She is locked in, unhappy, and has no options. A far cry from being ONLY a kindly but firm grandmother offering something to eat to her daughter’s new boyfriend.
Further, we gain insight into Troy, because he notices these things. Not the focus character in Honestly, I revealed very little about Troy, taking a significant portion of the story before divulging his disability in all its details. We don’t know much about his military service other than he got shot once. The only real inner feelings disclosed, other than his infatuation of Kassandra, is his (mild) jealousy of Dewayne, which the Home Cooking flash indicates is alive and well.
What he noticed in the scene first, the ability to walk through it, exposes his ongoing life struggle with footing. The rest of it, well, his ability to pull apart a room for a personality profile indicates something other than standard grunt-level training.
READING EXERCISE: Choose one scene in your present book and figure out what information you learn about the characters from the scene and what from the dialogue. If only the dialogue was provided, how would what you know about the characters be different?
WRITING EXERCISE: For a character from your present work in-progress (WIP), write a scene description of their favorite living space where they had control of the decoration – bedroom, desk at work, work room in basement, etc. from the viewpoint of a person entering the space to learn more about them, a spy, a date, their mother. Do not directly describe history or feelings of the WIP character, only what the person entering the space can see and infer. For example, I never out-and-out go into why a remote control writing may have worn off, but a great deal of information can be inferred.