Characterize through Experiential Description

In my last post for Writer Unboxed I used a term I’ve coined, “experiential description.” Teri suggested that it be the subject of a post for WU, so here it is.  

In samples I receive for my Flogging the Quill blog and for the editing side of my literary efforts, writers often fail to utilize a vital tool for characterization: description of place. While plot and action are tools to engage and entertain a reader, it is character that makes them come to care about what happens, and it is character that invests meaning into what happens. Take every chance you have to add to the characterization of your protagonist—or antagonist—to more deeply engage your reader. Thus “experiential description:” filtering the description of a place through your character’s point of view.

Here’s an example: a mailroom in a large corporation seen as a simple snapshot, the approach many writers take to description:

In a gray room with fluorescent lights, a rack of pigeonholes for sorting mail sat along one wall. Next to them stood a wheeled delivery cart, a desk with a computer on it, and a worn swivel chair.

Now to describe that same setting in a way that characterizes a middle-aged man who works in the mailroom.

Jeff switched on the mailroom light. The fluorescents glared at him the way they had for fifteen years, and the gray walls radiated depression. The rack of pigeonholes for sorting mail along one wall stared at him, each empty hole like his life. The delivery cart stood ready to cause the daily pain in his hip when he trudged through the offices, delivering mail to people who didn’t see him, like he was furniture. 

On his desk the computer waited to be turned on—no, they said “booted up,” didn’t they—its programs lurking, waiting to trip him up again when he tries to send out a shipment. He sat in his beat-up swivel chair, and a small sense of comfort came with the way the worn cushions conformed to his body and it squeaked when he tilted back.

Just as the snapshot approach gave you, you now have a picture of the room and what’s in it, so it served the purpose of setting the scene. But it has also served the purpose of defining Jeff’s character.

The exact same room seen through another character’s point of view has the same physical characteristics, but can be a very different place. Here’s the same room described through the point of view of Jinny, a twenty-something new employee.

Jinny burst through the mailroom door and was disappointed yet again to see Jeff already there. One of these days she’d beat him in and do the setup. He hadn’t even turned on the computer yet. She reached past him, slumped as usual in that crummy old swivel chair with the ratty cushion—why didn’t he requisition something decent—and flicked on the computer. When break came and he went out for a smoke she’d surf her favorite blogs.

The gray walls under the soft fluorescent light soothed her headache. The racks of pigeonholes waited for her to fill their mouths with the mail that helped the company function. The delivery cart stood ready—maybe today she’d ask Jeff if she could be the one that wheeled it through the cubicles, saying hi, meeting people. Even though she’d only been here a month, the mailroom felt like an old friend.

Same pigeonholes, same everything picturewise, but very different characterization—that’s experiential description. This post is adapted from one of the many “coachings” from my blog that writers have been finding useful for the last three years, and I’m including it in a new book on writing craft that I may self-publish in the spring. The title: Jump-start Your Novel with Kitty-cats in Action.

For what it’s worth.

Artwork by Aurelia24.

 

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Those are great examples! Thanks for the informative post. It seems like that would be especially important in a story with multiple points of view, but it’s not something I would have thought of. In fact, now that you’ve pointed it out, I can think of several fantasy novels I’ve read recently where this could have been applied to great effect.

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  2. says

    I agree with Amy–great post, Ray.

    I think you can use this technique even when you have a single POV, because any character can look at something differently (and this can be noticed by the POV character) or can comment on their surroundings. To take Ray’s example and spin it for mine:

    Jinny pondered Jeff. Maybe it was her headache–or the lack of her caffeine in her system–but she couldn’t stand the sight of him lounging in that chair anymore, or the way he looked at it like it was his personal Jesus. “Why don’t you get a smoke, Jeff? You look tired. I’ll handle the delivery cart today.” She held her breath and hoped.

    He stood and rubbed his hip. “Go ahead, then. Just watch that left wheel. It’s a killer–like everything else about this place.”

    Maybe not the best effort in the world, but hopefully you see what I mean.

    Thanks again, Ray, for a great post.

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  3. says

    Hi Ray, nice interesting post, thanks for sharing this.

    BTW, I love the “experiential description”, a very powerful wording!!!

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  4. theamcginnis says

    i think we get so bogged down during the creation process that we don’t step back to see how description actually rounds out our characters. We are all affected by our environment – why not our characters. Great smack by 2×4 this morning, WU!!

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  5. says

    Thanks Ray. I’ve found Writer Unboxed to be one of the best writers blogs around for exactly this kind of post. I agree with Anna–I’m going to put “Experiential Description” in big letters up on my wall.

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  6. m.s. jackson says

    Wow, it is amazing how each example is quite clearly ‘a different place’, yet actually the same! Thank you for pointing this out, this is a great lesson learned and one I will hopefully learn from in my writing.

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  7. jd fox says

    The light just came on. Now I must re-read every description I’ve ever written to make sure it’s from my POV character’s eyes and not mine. (Maybe I’ll filter them through another character’s POV just for fun–and practice.)

    This is the best piece of advice on writing I’ve read in a long time. Thanks, Ray.

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  8. TMM says

    Wow. That is so spot on and really got me thinking! Thanks for ‘bringing to light’ something that is so often overlooked. Being a beginner, I think I tend to either over-describe, if I’m excited about the picture I’m painting, or skip over it in ‘minimalist’ fashion. Now that I realize it’s another way to bring the CHARACTERS to life – that gives it all new meaning!

    Thanks Ray!

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