You can learn a lot about someone by simply walking into their house or apartment. Picture walking into a very modern house with muted colors and minimal decorations. Not a speck of dust can be found anywhere, but neither can any photos of family or any signs of life whatsoever. The countertops contain small simple objects like coasters, lamps, essential oil diffusers, but all personal touches have been tucked away or thrown out. There’s a bar on the side of the room with quite an assortment of different liquors, but they all appear to be untouched. You walk over and open a drawer to find an assortment of differently colored boxes with lids on top and labels such as ‘photos June 1998’, ‘office supplies’, ‘journals’, etc.
Simply from these details, there’s so much you can infer about this character. You can assume that they’re a neat freak, but also that it covers up a part of them that is private and closed off since they don’t have personal details or effects anywhere visible. This is emphasized further by the drawer detail, showing that they not only keep personal effects in drawers but also in boxes shows how many layers of privacy this person keeps. In addition, the bar detail gives the reader the sense that this character desires to host people, but doesn’t so they may be lonely.
Now, let’s look at another example. You walk into an apartment with carpeted floors and bookshelves lining the walls. Above and around the bookshelves you see dozens of posters for various movies, books, postcards, and paintings taped to the walls. There are notes taped to the fridge with various tasks and grocery lists. The dishes are all clean, but they’ve been left next to the sink despite the fact that they appear to already be dry. There are a few family photos taped up to the wall, but one of the apartment owner and their father appears to have fallen to the ground and hasn’t been taped back up. The carpeted floor appears to be freshly vacuumed, but the apartment owner left their Vans in the middle of the room.
Again, just with these cursory details, you learn a lot about the apartment owner. From the details about the bookshelves and posters, you learn that this person has a more artistic and whimsical personality. From the details about the dishes and the shoes you learn that this person is probably a little disorganized or at the very least not a neat freak like the previous homeowner. However, from the details about the organizational lists and floors, we can see that this person is at least making attempts to be organized, perhaps they’re in the process of trying to better themselves or kick bad habits. Finally, the detail about the fallen photo hints at a possible strained relationship with the character’s father.
Trying your hand at writing observational details like this is the ultimate test in showing rather than telling your readers details about your characters. To help you perfect your scene writing and allow you to give your readers these crucial details, here’s a writing exercise to help:
a) Start by picturing the homes and apartments of your friends and family. Write down each person’s name and specific details you noticed about their homes. Try to specifically think about what each observation could say about their character or personality.
b) Once you’ve completed this, choose a character from your book. Write a scene where your character is attempting to give a room in their house a makeover. Describe the room before the makeover, during as they may uncover things while they clean, and then afterward. Don’t be afraid to use the details you just wrote down about friends/family as inspiration for the details in this scene.
Think about specifically why your character may want to change this room. Maybe it has a lot of memories from a relationship they just ended or perhaps they feel that their life has become too messy and they want to clean in order to allow themselves to feel more organized again. Think about what the room makeover truly means for them and show it through scene details rather than by explicitly telling the reader what the character is doing.