Many of my early stories could have been told in an empty white room. Describing settings was always so tedious to me–getting away from the action of the scene to stop and explain to the reader about the lampshade and the carpets in a soulless laundry list or overwrought, long-winded paragraphs.
But it doesn’t have to be that way–it just took me a long time to understand how to give soul to my descriptions, so I thought I’d share my discovery.
How we view things–everything–is weighed down by our emotions, moods, and history. How I see my mother’s house is going to be entirely different than my husband or my best friend, because we have different emotional and historical attachments (or values) to the setting.
This has become most evident lately, as I’m preparing for some changes in my life. I’m moving back to my semi-rural hometown from the city. For many years, going back to visit my hometown always brought negative feelings in me–it felt small and worn down and I could only remember too many events that happened there that made me want to leave and never return.
On the other hand, my friends who had visited that town thought it was “cute and quaint” and harbored no negative feelings for it. My husband, who didn’t grow up there, had entirely different feelings about it, and those were based on his own life growing up in a city suburb.
It’s the same when someone enters your house. You think it’s a mess and cluttered, or even spotless and clean. Another person might come in and think it’s cozy, tidy, and lived in, or they might feel it’s too pristine or too sterile. Each person perceives the same place differently, based on their own experiences, preferences, and their emotional state.
Use this for your characters.
Does your character prefer small and lived-in? Does she prefer large, spotless, and empty? What does her background suggest?
Is she in a hurry? She might not be paying attention to the details and everything is an obstacle. Is she trapped? She might be eying the details and the walls feel imprisoning.
Is it her mother’s house? What if her mother has moved since the last time she visited, and so the house is even alien to the protagonist? What mixed emotions would that cause? Would she see items once from her previous home now displaced?
How does our cackling villain see his dark lair? How does the hero? Knowing this can help you, even if you don’t decide to share it.
There are many directions to take–and many dimensions you can unlock about your characters’ personality, emotions, and background–by how they respond to their immediate setting. Give it a try, and see if it helps bring new insights in both how you integrate your description into your narrative, and what it reveals about your character.