Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What's on a wall? A study in character

While planning my latest WIP I ran into an interesting wall (no pun intended) (but it worked out nicely) while developing my MC. She is a 16 year old girl in a futuristic setting, and the opening scene takes place in her room. My initial reaction was to skip over what her room looked like, because that wasn't really important to driving the story forward (or so I thought). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn't move forward until I actually knew what her room looked like. Why, you ask?

A little back story: I tend to either trudge through scenery descriptions or dispense with them all together in first drafts, because I personally hate writing scenery. I hate reading it and I hate writing it. When I read I tend to skim over the descriptions as soon as I figure out the bare bones of it - they're in a house, they're in a desert, they're in a robot prison shaped like an egg, etc.. I tend to write the same way, giving skeletal descriptions or only describing what I think is important to the story later.

So describing my character's room? Not high on my list of fun things to do in a first draft. But as I pondered the question of what would be on her wall, I realized that I wasn't just talking about Backstreet Boys of the Future posters or pictures of friends or some cool futuristic device. I was talking about her character.

Because what we put on our walls - how we decorate our homes, what color palettes we choose, whether we hang paintings or pictures - defines us as people. It was like an episode of Room Raiders on MTV, where people would go into someone's room and go through their stuff and try to determine their personality. (At least, I'm pretty sure that's how that show went.) The contents of a bedroom can sometimes tell you more about the person than they way they look or dress or talk.

I find the concept to be especially important in teenagers, since their room is typically their sanctuary. As we grow older and start owning things like cars and houses and garages, the concept of our own little corner of the world gets a little skewed. But for a kid, that room/tree house/crawlspace under the stairs IS their universe. And defining what that universe looks like defines who they are inside, regardless of what they show the rest of the world.

And for me, answering what was on her walls gave me the central plot point of the story. It told me who she was, what she wanted, and what she would do to get there. It grounded the character for me, and oddly enough I didn't struggle with her personality for the rest of the WIP. All I had to do was remember that room, and I knew what she would do.

Do you typically envision your MC's room? How does it impact your story? Have you ever surprised yourself after figuring out their little piece of the world?


Laurel Garver said...

Hey friend! It's been a while!

So true that setting can be a very helpful characterization tool. Obviously not every setting matters intensely, but definitely for kids and teens a bedroom is an extension of who they perceive themselves to be in private. A few details like what's on the walls can say a lot.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Wow! Great post!

I am like you. I don't read descriptions, and I don't like writing them. Your explanation was perfect. When reading, I skim enough to get the gist of where we are, then look ahead for action/dialogue.

However, when I was doing my editorial revisions for The Caged Graves, my editor made me go back and expand the descriptions of the town and the surroundings -- and I'm glad I did. Without getting all J.R.R. Tolkein on the setting, I think I managed to give the entire book a better flavor of an 1867 Pennsylvania mountain town.

And I love that deciding what your MC put on her walls helped you actualize her character. It makes sense, and I'm not sure I would have had the sense to see it. I'm glad you did!