Just as what a character describes can tell us about that character their environment can tell us about them too whether it’s a minimalist living room, a messy car or a potted plat by the front door. Everyone’s home is as individual as they are and even a lack of individualising objects can tell us about a character. A home with nothing individual about it suggests it isn’t a ‘home’ at all but somewhere that can be quickly left, a place the character is detached from, a place only used for sleeping and eating.
Using the setting to tell us something about a character doesn’t have to be something glaring or quirky, it can be as simple as whether or not they have family photographs on the wall or the amount of food in the fridge. Such details can be scattered around revealing bits and pieces about the character and allowing the reader to build their own picture without explicitly stating it.
A cliché might be the angsty detective with nothing in their cupboards but booze. What does this suggest to the reader? Perhaps the detective is more concerned about work than food, they’re an alcoholic, they aren’t taking care of their health as well as they should, it might even suggest they don’t care about themselves, perhaps their work is more important. I’m not saying this is exactly what bare cupboards mean, it’s simply ways bare cupboards might be interpreted. It could easily be that the character has been busy and hasn’t had chance to get to the shop or they have someone living with them who eats all their food.
How a reader with interpret the space you present to them will be affected by the larger context of the novel. For example, if they know the detective has a lodger and the detective shuts the cupboard door in frustration they might glean that the lodger eats all the food and never replaces it. Perhaps the reader knows the detective is a former alcoholic and the detective considers the bottle then shuts the cupboard, in this context it might be a symbolic reminder of why they don’t drink, but a constant temptation all the same, like having one last cigarette.
In such a moment we have history, behaviour and setting working together to paint a picture of the protagonist. This doesn’t mean you can’t at some point tell the reader why the detective only has a bottle of whiskey in their cupboard but even before you do they can begin to make a story about the why and when the reason is revealed they may be surprised because they expected something else or pleased because they anticipated the reason.
Often the character’s personal space, whether an office, a house or a car is somewhere that will be frequently revisited so the picture can be built up slowly. The fact it will often be revisited also makes a tool to express character that shouldn’t be underrated.
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