Day 4: If You Really Want to Know the People in Your Story, Do This

“Anyone who has ever scanned the bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend—or peeked inside his or her medicine cabinet—understands this implicitly; you can learn as much - or more - from one glance at a private space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face.”

— Malcolm Gladwell

Welcome back, friends!

In this series, I’ve already talked about a few very effective ways to tell if the people in your story have the Big 3 Things — uniqueness, complexity, and desire. These are the required attributes a character must have to be compelling enough to carry a story from start to finish.

So far, it’s all been about listening — like, actual listening with our ears — to the things people tell us. It’s been about setting the stage for great interviews, asking strong questions, and gathering multiple perspectives.

That’s all well and good, but today’s tip might be even more powerful. Today we’re going to get visual and let our eyes conduct our research for us.

The surprising power of place to reveal character information

In that quote from Blink, a thought-provoking book on how our unconscious minds make surprisingly good snap decisions, Malcolm Gladwell points out that the places we inhabit say a lot about us. In fact, they often say far more than we would ever say ourselves.

And that’s what this article is all about.

Place is more than just a setting for your story. It’s also an invaluable tool for researching your characters and coming to a better understanding of who they are.

So, as you dive into this process of listening and discovery, take the time to observe the spaces your characters inhabit. Whether that’s an office, a living space, or anywhere this person has taken the time to set up shop and personalize a little bit.

Here are some of the types of things — though there are plenty of others — to pay attention to:

  • How do they decorate? Is it spare and minimal, or cluttered and frantic?
  • Can you determine their taste in art, books, movies, comics, etc?
  • Can you tell what their hobbies are, or spot signs of other activities that might inform their character?
  • Does this space seem consistent with how they describes themselves?

When you observe a place and make note of all these things, it’s going to give you even more context for who this person is. And more importantly, it will give you new information that you can use to ask some well-informed followup questions.

What my apartment says about me: A super detailed and personal case study

As I was sitting here brainstorming ideas for this article, I looked around my apartment and had an “a-ha!” moment. This place is a literal goldmine of character information, so I decided to make a case study out of it. Hopefully this will give you a good sense of how places can inform your understanding of a character.

If you were to ask me what I do for a living or what I’m passionate about, I’d probably say that I’m a writer and filmmaker, and I would likely talk your ear off for hours about those two things. You might get a sense that film and writing are the two defining aspects of my life. And you’d be right to a certain extent.

But my apartment tells a much larger and more diverse story.

As you walk through the door, you’d immediately notice a few things. First, this place is hilariously tiny. At a whopping 360 square feet, it’s safe to say this studio apartment of mine is basically a large closet.

What conclusions might you draw from that simple observation? If it were me, I’d think something like:

“Maybe this guy is like those minimalist/tiny house people I keep hearing about. Or maybe he’s young and broke and just can’t afford anything bigger at the moment. Who knows. Either way, I should ask him.”

Then you’d start to notice how the place is decorated and what it contains. From this, you’d get a much broader picture of who I am, what I care about, and what motivates me. All from a brief look around.

For starters, you’d probably notice the guitars scattered about. Four of them, in fact; an acoustic, an electric, and two jazzy-looking archtops. Then you’d notice the art on the walls, almost all of which is related to jazz music in some way.

“This guy is probably pretty serious about playing guitar,” you’d think to yourself. “Oh damn, Hardy must really dig jazz., like an abnormal amount.”

In front of my wall of guitars sits a stationary bike, placed where a couch or chair might be in someone else’s apartment. About three feet from the bike, a standing desk is raised to its highest position. Another quick glance reveals yoga blocks and a mat, tucked away in a corner because there’s literally no other place for them.

“Looks like Rob cares about health and fitness, or at least he cares about buying health gadgets. Yoga seems like a strange choice for him. I wonder if he’s into meditation and all that stuff too.”

Then you’d likely notice the books. More books than can possibly fit on my busted-up Ikea bookshelf, lovingly held together in places by super glue and gaff tape. They’re stacked on my bedside table, my desk, and some days, my bed. It’s a little bit out of hand, quite frankly.

As for types of books, you’d notice the requisite writing and filmmaking and music books, but you’d also find countless business and marketing books, psychology books, philosophy and art books, literary novels, books on Buddhism, libertarian economics, and media law. Hell, there’s even a little poetry thrown in for good measure.

“Great, so he’s also a bookworm who reads about a dizzying array of unrelated and somewhat strange topics. Cool. What next?

Take a walk into the kitchen, and you’d come across what can only be described as a coffee shrine, replete with several types of manual brewers, filters, a hand-operated burr grinder, a scale, and several bags of fancy looking coffee. Plus a mug with Ron Swanson’s glorious mustached face on it.

“Huh, I guess Rob isn’t the kind of guy who’s content to just brew a pot of coffee in the morning. It looks like he has to do things the hardest possible way and obsess over every tiny detail. Plus he’s a fan of Parks and Rec, so I guess he’s kind of normal, maybe…”

To end this hypothetical tour, you mosey on into the bathroom and you’re struck by a collection of straight razors, which look to actually be in use. After a look around, you confirm there are no safety razors in sight and that, yes, these straight razors are what I use to remove hair from my face.

“Yep, Robert is definitely the kind of guy who prefers doing everything the hard way. That seems like such an impractical way to shave. What a weirdo.”

At this point, I’m sure you get the picture. You could observe all of this in probably a minute or two, but it sheds so much light on who I am, what I enjoy, how I spend my time, and even some of my character traits. And that’s just the immediately noticeable stuff. If you had more time and paid close attention, you’d find so much more.

If you were in the process of telling my story, you’d have an incredible amount of new information to work with. You’d have a million new questions you could ask to dig further into who I am. You, my friend, would have just conducted some extremely valuable visual research, all without breaking a sweat.

This is how it can be with the characters in your next story. What places do they inhabit, and what do those places say about them? It all adds up into a more cohesive portrait of who they are as a real person, not just a one-sided character. So take the time to observe. You’ll be glad you did.

Wrapping up

Alrighty, here’s a quick recap of everything we covered today:

  • Places and objects can convey and incredible amount of authenticity.
  • Don’t just use places as locations for your film. Use them as research to inform you about your characters and their stories.
  • How someone furnishes and decorates their living space (or working space) likely says more about them than they’d say themselves.
  • I’m a strange dude who lives in a very tiny apartment with too much stuff in it.

I’m going to wrap this article up with one of my favorite quick scenes from The End of the Tour, the severely underrated 2015 flick about a journalist's encounter with famed writer, David Foster Wallace.

If just goes to show that when you’re observing place, and you take the time to ask about the small details, you might just strike gold.

See you tomorrow.