character in setting

In an exercise on sensory writing I spoke of entering a roundhouse and imagining the textures, smells and visual imagery. However the exercise could easily be extended to show some of the ways in which character can be used as a ‘filter’ through which to visualise — with greater depth and mood — a given environment.

In fact, if you’re using character at all, you need to think about the way they see and feel their surroundings. This exercise is aimed to help extend your ability to portray this.


Take one of your own existing characters and plant him or her inside an ancient village roundhouse. Concentrate not on why the character is there, but on the pure perceptions of place. Is this character tall? In that case your character would see from a particular vantage, and might be able to discern swallow nests and so forth in the rafters, or failing that, perhaps they’d find themselves having to stoop to avoid inhaling the dense cloud of upper-level smoke.

If your character is short or a child, think differently. What do they see? What do they nearly step on? Who appears dominant to them? Is your character likely to feel nervous? Might they be disdainful of ruder ways of living? Are they used to luxury? Do they have a rat phobia? All these things will affect how they see, feel and experience the roundhouse, and therefore how you’ll describe it.

Write a single paragraph that expresses most fleetingly and exactly the significant ‘feel’ of the space according to that character. Stick to broadbrush things: smell; light; impression. When you write sensorily you often use impressions because they stick in the mind better. The easiest and most succinct description is often a metaphor, so don’t necessarily try to be exact or literal.

For instance, here is a basic description from a neutral point of view:

A wide hearth lay in the centre of the room, surrounded by a circle of stones. On its fiery core bubbled clay pots, while above hung strands of drying meat.

But now imagine how you could use description :

A red maw opened in the floor, stone teeth gripping an array of clay pots and strung meat.

What would the latter kind of description say about the character doing the observing?