Hints from the home: decor for character

All the books on storage solutions I’ve been flicking through since I moved house last year insist that your home speaks volumes about you, and controlling what’s on show can control someone’s impressions as they call round for the first time. I dread to think what messages my house is sending out about me (maybe that I read a lot and don’t always find the time for things like putting clothes away – I’ll only wear them again at some point), but anyone whose opinion I value would know me well enough to either overlook the clutter and cat hair, or see through my attempts to tame it with sleek chests and magazine racks.

From a writer’s point of view though, this is fertile territory. Without overdosing on description, what hints can you drop by the presence or absence of items in a room. What about lack of curtains? Depending on context, it could reinforce the remoteness of a house, remind us that the occupant’s just moved in, it could jar in a Scandinavian winter or seem perfectly natural in a French summer. Hints of personality come through in clashing colours and disorder, or neatly labelled box-files and neutral tones. One small item out of place can speak volumes.

Not only does it reveal something about the character whose house it is, it can also reveal things about the character who’s visiting. What does it say that the first thing they notice is a crumpled cigarette packet barely sticking up from behind a sofa cushion? Are they looking for clues, a bit of a clean-freak, nosy, or the home-owner’s ex who’s disappointed to realise that this packet’s an indicator of a habit resumed?

It’s easy to overdo it – as OneMonkey often says, we might need to know the man bought a sandwich, but we don’t need to know it was reduced-fat prawn mayonnaise on wholegrain bread – but done well, it can allow the reader to pick up a sense of the characters as well as building the stage-set in their head. Raymond Chandler was a master at this as at so many other things and I recommend reading one of his short stories to see how neatly it can be done.

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2 comments

  1. Yes, indeed! You make an excellent point about balance in description, as well as showing how something as (apparently) mundane as curtains can provide solid information for the reader.

    When you give subtle clues about the character of the, erm… character, and let the reader put it all together, you show respect for the reader, and pull them deeper into the story.

    1. Ah, balance in description – learnt the hard way (by having OneMonkey make cracks about prawn sandwiches, mostly).

      I find it interesting when the reader picks up on things you hadn’t even realised were there – so clever of you to give him a pig-shaped chopping board, reinforcing his link with the pig farmer who turns out to be his long lost uncle – which either goes to show your subconscious is ultra busy or that you can read meaning into just about anything if you try hard enough.

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