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There's No Place Like Home

Actor Laurence Olivier used to know that he’d worked out the character he was playing when he knew how they walked. The walk was essential. Once he had it, he could get inside their head and know how they thought too.

It’s not about the walk for me. For me, it’s about the house. I don’t know a character until I know where they live. Looking at a person’s home is sometimes the closest you can get to looking straight into their life.

Here are some things to think about:

The character of the house: whether it’s old and eccentric, with unexpected rooms hiding around dark corners; or a compact apartment tucked in among dozens of identical apartments; or a suburban sprawling mansion with rooms the size of sport fields and a hungry garage.

What is the house surrounded by? Maybe it’s on a hill where storms wail round it late at night, or maybe on a busy city street. Maybe it even has one of those terrifying gardens where everything is pruned to within an inch of its life and planted in colour coordinated rows. (It probably says quite a lot about the houses I have lived in that I find tidy things scary. Ahem.)

What is your character’s relationship to their home? Is it a place they feel comfortable bringing their friends back to?  If they were to imagine their ideal house, would it be much like the one they live in? Or would it be completely different? I have one character who lives in an ultra modern designer home who’d actually rather live somewhere old and colourful and unpredictable; I have another character who completely loves her house. She lives in an ugly 70s townhouse with breeze block walls and cobwebs and not enough light, but it is full of the mountains of beloved books her family has collected over the years, stacked up in every room. She can’t imagine life without them. Which leads me to:

What is the house full of? If your character’s home is full of tidiness, whose tidiness is it? Maybe your character races home after school every day to hide her parents’ mess and vacuum the floors. Or maybe it’s her mother’s, always ready for visitors who never arrive. Or maybe your character lives in a house full of precarious piles of other people’s old stuff, televisions that don’t work and newspapers from seven years ago and cages for long dead pets. Maybe your character finds being surrounded by all these things reassuring, or maybe they make her feel like her life is out of control. Whether your character leaves much mark on the house they live in says a lot too. Some of us can live in a house almost unnoticed, while others can’t leave a room without leaving a little pile of things somewhere, coffee cups and half finished books and an abandoned hat.

What part of the house does your character spend the most time in, and why?
Possibly the living room full of her little brother’s toys, mostly broken. Or a large wardrobe no one ever looks in, where she writes strange things in notebooks by torchlight. Or maybe she needs windows. Maybe she has a favourite big window she curls up next to so she can watch the world racing past.

Where do your characters live?
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. That's some great advice. I give them houses, of course, but never really thought of all the nuances about how where you live shapes you. If you're a kid with a cool hideaway somewhere, that will make you more introspective.

    I usually have them down when I can tell if they'd like me or not. If I'd get along with them in real life. I love some characters, but I can't imagine being actual friends with them. Of if they're girls, if I could fall in love with them.

  2. I was interested in this post because the YA novel I just finished writing uses the house as a metaphor for the protagonist's character development. In the beginning, it's just a tumble-down cabin. First the big problems (hole in the roof) get addressed, then the house is updated and "polished," until--by the end--it's a home.

  3. Great post, Leila. I never consciously realized it, but I almost always start with the character's house too.

  4. Jess and Caleb's homes took hours of planning. I knew the location of both houses. Jess' house is a chocolate box cottage with only the thatched roof missing. Caleb's took a lot longer to plan. I found three pictures that had elements of his perfect house and combined them.

    Does anyone know anything about KRONK clothes (not the Disney character) ?

  5. Totally awesome post! I am so big on settings, but honestly, I'm not sure that I usually pin down the details of homes as well as I do some of the other settings--what an oversight that I obviously need to rectify :D

  6. Nice prompts for character development. Home is a great place to start seeing the character's world through his/her eyes!

  7. Also, if you use settings that are meaningful they will reveal/enhance character development. That means they're pulling double duty...always a good thing.

  8. Now that I'm thinking about, maybe it has been like that with me. I think about one guy's apartment in particular in my first novel. Weird. Now I'm going to be insanely conscious of it.

  9. I love the idea of understanding character through a common, non-thinking movement like walking. Olivier had great insight into the core of a character.

    When a character starts to come together for me, I have to hear them speak before I can get a grasp on them. I spend lots of driving time trying to get them to speak in just the right way so I know it's really them.

    It's great to have such schitzoid thoughts be a sign of creativity -- that other people understand!

    -- Tom


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Item Reviewed: There's No Place Like Home Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin