[This post is excerpted from my free email course on character development!]
When you think of a typical day in your life, where do you spend the most time? As well as your home and your office, is there a coffee shop you frequent? A farmer’s market you attend every week? A board game cafe where the staff know you by name? What is it that draws you to these places? How much time do you spend there?
Just as there are people our characters’ lives wouldn’t be the same without, there are places that become fixtures, even iconic, to them. Where do they spend their waking hours? All too often, characters go to the same generic restaurant or the same cookie cutter park. Think how bland life would be if this were the case.
Even places like Starbucks have a different feel at each location, despite having the same menu. The staff, the locale, even the murals change the vibe. A Starbucks near the beach in California is going to differ from one in the Rocky Mountains, right? And don’t forget how things change from season to season: new drinks and munchies get added to the menu or taken away; the decor shifts; people will be more likely to linger for hours inside with cozy weather than a gorgeously sunny day.
Sorting out these locations is so important for a strong character foundation and, in turn, a strong story, because:
- you’ll know where to set scenes when your character wants to be alone, or when you want someone to intrude on their everyday life (what if their pesky mother-in-law gets a membership at their gym?)
- this level of detail will help the reader make connections to important places in their own life, and empathize and connect with your character as a result (imagine reading about a character's jaunt through Amsterdam and realizing you've stood exactly where they're looking at their map)
- it hints at what would cause a major disruption to your character’s day (what happens if your agoraphobic character’s grocery store ceases their delivery service?)
- knowing which places they frequent and how often gives a sense of their priorities and even their spending habits (someone who goes to the library every week is likely a big reader and a wee bit frugal)
If you’re still feeling a bit lost and unsure where to get started, here’s some sample questions to consider (or go ahead and skip to today’s homework, eager beaver) …
Do they live alone or do they share the space with anyone? Do they like spending time there or do they spend most of their time out and about? Is it their dream space or a stepping stone to greater things? When they’re at home, do they spend most of their time in their bedroom (more likely when they have roommates), cooking up big batches of future leftovers in the kitchen, or drifting from room to room?
If your character doesn’t work at home, do they work in a small company or division where everybody knows everyone’s name (and actually cares) or do they work in a larger, more impersonal skyscraper? Maybe it’s a company that boasts the best of both worlds! Is it a stressful environment or an inspiring one? How much time does your character spend there?
Where does your character regularly meet up with friends? Are they part of a monthly book group that meets at the central library? Do they take over a long table at a board game cafe each week for a rousing game of Eldritch Horror? Do they take turns hosting knit nights at each other’s homes?
When your character wants to chill out and have a good time, where do they go? Is it somewhere your character goes to get away from people or be around them? An ice rink that pipes in classical music three times a week in the afternoon? The indie bookstore downtown with a neighbouring gluten-free bakery? The weekly swing dance at the old community hall with vaulted ceilings? The local yarn store with the employees who range from super friendly to crotchety?
On a larger scale, there are places in the world that hold meaning to us. Think about where your character grew up, where they went to school, where they spent (or are spending) their twenties, where they’re raising their family. You can take side roads, too: did your character take a backpacking trip they’ve never forgotten, or find themselves in Bali, or fall in love in England? Is there somewhere they desperately want to go someday?
2. As well as thinking about where your character regularly spends their time, take a few minutes to consider which buildings or locations are most important to your character, whether they visit it often or not. Maybe it’s the trail they hike every summer, or the house where they grew up. Maybe it’s a place they haven’t thought of in years (or tried to forget), but something, or someone, jogs their memory. Typically these kinds of locations have stories attached: write a few snapshot memories to give yourself both a sense of the location and your character’s attachment to it.
3. Write a scene where your character goes to one of their favourite and/or most important places, and something has changed. What is this change, and how does your character react? How does it affect their perception of the place?
Bonus round: Is there a place your character detests and stays away from at all costs? Why? What would make them go there? (These questions were inspired by Nicole after a Periscope I did on this topic!)