Creating a Character’s Background, Place, Setting, and Milieu (writing exercise #15)

Happy National Novel Writing Month! Who’s writing?? I am!

I have been working on a new novel for a month or so. It’s going…slowly. I’m not hammering out hours on it every day as would be ideal. But I’m doing what I can, and doing a little bit (almost) every day.

If you’re writing too, join me in these writing exercises, straight from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.

Side note: I can’t recommend The 90 Day Novel enough, if you haven’t picked that up as well. There are also writing exercises in that book, although much simpler. (As in, write for five minutes as your main character starting with, “My idea of a perfect day is…”)

This exercise is a little bit like the Props one – we’re taking a look at settings and objects that can really define who a person is. If someone broke into your house and went through your stuff, they’d have a pretty good idea about your personality, right? Let’s pretend we’re about to rob our protagonist’s home.


If you’re following along in the book, we’re on page 46.

“Create a setting for one or more of the following and furnish a place with his character – you create the character through observation of the setting. The place can be any kind of locale – house, a specific room in a house, outdoor grounds, an office, a cell, even a bed. The description must incorporate enough characteristic things so that the reader can visualize the absent dweller accurately. Try to avoid stereotypes.”

A few stereotypes they list for you to avoid: A waitress down on her luck, a foster child, a blind person.

“The objective: To be able to select details that will create a character and furnish the world of that character. Note which details indicate the circumstances of the subject – such things as success or lack of success, social status, and habits. Which details indicate emotions, personality, intelligence, character, and outlook on life?”

Now, my story is about four college students, so I’m going to pick one of them and think of their dorm room. The challenge for me is avoid the stereotype of a typical college dorm room. 

Here I go:

Alvin needed that paper from Tom. He needed it immediately and Tom wasn’t answering his cell phone. The situation was dire. If Alvin didn’t get the paper to Samantha, the person it was intended for, and she didn’t hand it in on time, she was going to fail the class.

As he approached Tom’s dorm, a feeling of anxiety swept over him. He had never been inside Tom’s dorm room. He had a distinct feeling this was intentional on Tom’s part.

Alvin approached room 413 after climbing three sets of stairs. There was a printed out sheet of paper with names “Thomas” and “Gerard” on it, surrounded by blue and green stars. Alvin forgot they did this for freshmen. Tom apparently didn’t take to it, because there was a great number of scratches and scribbles through his name to block it out.

He knocked. A guy who was not Tom – Gerard, presumably, opened the door and a giant cloud of pot smoke came wafting out. Alvin coughed. Tom didn’t smoke weed. Alvin wondered if he hated that his roommate did.

“Hey! Sorry to bother you, I was looking for Tom?”

“Not here.”

“Oh, okay. Listen, I wouldn’t normally do this but I really need to get a paper from him. Do you think it would be okay if I came in and looked for it?”

“No problem.”

Gerard stepped aside and Alvin came in. The room was divided like many rooms on campus, with the standard bed/desk/dresser set up on each side. Gerard retired to his computer to play World of Warcraft on the right side. The left side was Tom’s.

Tom’s bed was made like a professional hotel employee had been paid extra to make this bed look better than all the other hotel beds. The corners were tucked in just so, with the front corner flipped back. The thick navy blue and white striped comforter looked like it had been steam pressed, the pillow triple fluffed.

No posters of half naked girls and/or beer were on the wall. The desk was not cluttered with empty beer cans and half open notebooks. There was no bowl with encrusted, three-day old Ramen noodles. No clothing poking out of dresser drawers.

Alvin realized that he wasn’t going to be able to find the paper quickly – it would’t be out in the open. He’d have to seriously snoop, which he wasn’t comfortable with. He also had a distinct feeling he didn’t want to know what Tom might be hiding.