Note: This is a series of old posts from a site I used to write a weekly blog/article for. Since the site is now down, I’m putting up a number of my favourite posts back up on my site!
Struggling to slice open boxes held shut with layers of stubborn packing tape. Treasure hunting for the computer’s power cable, buried somewhere in a pool of crumpled papers. Carrying item after item into my room and trying to squeeze belongings that once filled a whole apartment into the space of a single bedroom. Those have been the main activities of my weekend. It has not been fun, to say the least.
As I’ve unpacked, moved, and set up all the furniture, decorations and clothing, the room has slowly started to become an extension of myself. With each book I add to my shelf, each photo I put up, and even each figurine I reposition, the room reflects who I am at this point in time; it declares my passions (the ‘writing book’ shelf and the video game figures), my priorities (the lack of a bed to accommodate a TV) and my aesthetic sensibilities (read: none). A bare, spartan room has been transformed into one where I can walk in and instantly feel relaxed.
It’s a well-known principle in writing that a place should take on its own character. But just like my room is an extension of who I am, something I’ve found useful when writing is to create a place that is a part of the character I’ve created. It’s not necessarily a room – it could be any setting: grassy fields that expand into the horizon, on a cliff where the sea crashes far below, on a stage when the lights turn on and the curtain rises.
One of my characters, a young boy, has a favourite spot in the corner of a warehouse where he holes up. Scattered wooden crates serve as makeshift tables, and old books sit in neat piles on the floor, filling the area with the smell of parchment and leather. A well-worn pen sits among the many sheets of parchment, all of them covered in scribbled notes. Already, you’re forming an image of this boy, and I haven’t said anything about him yet.
Two characters can love the same place, but for different reasons – and this contrast can also speak volumes. My other character loves the warehouse as well. But what she loves is its contrast to her usual life, where she’s expected to be demure and well-bred. A wooden board hangs on one wall, covered in thousands of marks that show where daggers have been embedded. Scuff marks cover the floor, and the smell of sweat lingers in the air. In the corner is the comforting sight of the young boy, head bent as he scratches away with the pen.
My readers may never see these places over the course of the story, and they may not even be explicitly mentioned. Still, these tableaus are a useful tool for providing a better understanding who my characters are, and what it is they truly want. In the course of a story, they may do terrible things they would really rather not, or be in terrible places physically or mentally. It helps to have that place as an unshakeable goal – a spatial representation of their true character and desires that gives me something to focus on as I move events in that world onward.
After all, every person has a desire for a place where they can feel comfortable, somewhere they can come back to after a long, hard day… somewhere they feel at home. For me, home is a room that I can use as a springboard into other worlds; through the sights and sounds of movies and video games on my home theatre, through the captivating words recorded by others in the books that line a wall from floor to ceiling, and through my own imagination as I write away on my computer about the worlds and the people I’ve invented.
And as I give each of these fictional characters their own places as well, it has taken me a long way toward knowing them as people in their own right. I’ve discovered new things that have surprised and delighted me – all they needed was a little space. All they needed was a home.