We know that research yields vivid, concrete details that bring our characters and their settings to life and enrich our plots. However, the editorial task of sorting through the piles of objects, images, and textures arrives where we select only the most meaningful and significant details for our characters. This process deepens our writing and hints at our character’s moral complexities, hopes and dreams, and even fears. By selecting the right details, we create rounder, life-like characters, instead of flat stereotypes.
If we neglect this step, the overflow of information will confuse readers rather than present vivid, life-like characters. The result is that nothing stands out as particularly meaningful to the character. For example, I developed this list of details while researching my novel’s setting: the Upper French Louisiana in the late 1700s. I chose details for my character that I hoped would reveal not only her socio-economic status, but also her hopes, dreams, and fears:
Two pair of ladies slippers lay on the plank flooring under her bed. One pair with hard leather soles, made in New Orleans, and the other, soft-soled, intricately beaded moccasins. Opposite her bed stood a large chest filled with woolen bedding, linens, a silk purse, a pair of gloves, and a small, silver-framed portrait. A gilt-handle mirror hung from the rough plastered wall behind the chest.
As you can see, these details add nothing to either character or plot. Instead, I’ve unloaded my details in what’s called an “information dump.” However, if I allow my character to interact with her possessions, then perhaps the items will add meaning and complexity to her life. The next example shows the Celeste and her nurse-midwife interacting with details selected for their significance to my character’s life:
Celeste awoke. She motioned to an old chest in the far corner of the room, the chest where she stored her finery. It held her silk purse, white leather gloves, and the silver- framed portrait of herself that Philippe had commissioned in New Orleans, only two years earlier—his wedding present to her. “Find the valise and hide it from Madame, please.” The woman, her midwife, rummaged through Celeste’s clothing—a crimson dressing gown, a taffeta petticoat, all that was left of Celeste’s beauty and youth. “Quickly,” Celeste whispered, “I hear Madame’s footsteps outside the door.”
Later in the story, the valise increases in significance when the antagonist, Madame Marie-Louise, attempts to take it, and thereby increases conflict and develops the plot:
Marie-Louise stood in the shadows by the cot, observing the slave-woman’s body sway in her expression of grief. Alert for the most opportune time, she knew that Cymbee’s outlandish moans would eventually bring Philippe and the others. She would have to act fast. She dropped to her knees and searched the floor under the cot. Her stretched fingertips touched a leather pull with brass clasps. The old woman had pushed it deep against the back wall. Marie-Louise inched her way underneath the cot, leveraging against the iron bedstead to tug the bag forward, but it caught against a raised plank. Footsteps brushed past her toward Celeste and her baby. She heard Philippe’s muffled cry and glanced toward the commotion.
Through the detail of objects, setting, and character interactions, we learn something about the morality, hopes, dreams, and fears of the characters. We see Marie-Louise groveling under her slave’s cot (while her daughter-in-law is dying in childbirth) searching for the valise explicitly hidden from her. We also have some insight into Philippe through his demeanor and actions: his muffled cry and footsteps brushing past his mother towards his wife and child. Perhaps we have learned enough to judge their characters, as well as the plot, and decide if we’ll keep reading.
Now, it’s your turn. Imagine a room where your character spends a lot of time. Perhaps your character spends time in the kitchen where her family gathers during meal preparation or the family room with the large, stone fireplace where she cozy’s up to read her favorite novel. Imagine, for a moment, joining her in that space. Look around and ask yourself (and your character) questions. How does the room make you feel? Do you feel peaceful, excited, or fearful? How does the room and furnishings contribute to your feelings, and why? How does your character feel about this place? Why does she come here? Does she want to be here? Brainstorm to come up with a list of specific items you see in the room, and jot down any emotions these items stir in you. Does your character share your feelings? What emotional or life-attachment does your character have with these objects, with this place? Now, write freely, without restraint, about the strongest, most vivid impression you’ve gained from your character’s environment.