Posted by: victanguera | June 15, 2012

Setting as Character Description

Most books I’ve read use some type of personal description to show character (how they dress, body build/size, how they move within a space for example). I’ve come to expect it as a “norm”. I just started reading Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. At the end of chapter five, we are introduced to a new character. The narrator relates a few phrases about regarding what he knows of this person. Then at the beginning of chapter six fleshes it out like so:

Standing in the doorway and glancing round me, I had a general impression of extraordinary comfort and elegance combined with an atmosphere of masculine virility. Everywhere there were mingled the luxury of the wealthy man of taste and the careless untidiness of the bachelor. Rich furs and strange iridescent mats from some Oriental bazaar were scattered upon the floor. Pictures and prints which even my unpractised eyes could recognize as being of great price and rarity hung thick upon the walls. Sketches of boxers, of ballet-girls, and of racehorses alternated with a sensuous Fragonard, a martial Girardet, and a dreamy Turner. But amid these varied ornaments there were scattered the trophies which brought back strongly to my recollection the fact that Lord John Roxton was one of the great all-round sportsmen and athletes of his day. A dark-blue oar crossed with a cherry-pink one above his mantel-piece spoke of the old Oxonian and Leander man, while the foils and boxing-gloves above and below them were the tools of a man who had won supremacy with each.

And just like that, I know that this new person is a sportsman (rowing and boxing), that he has an appreciation for fine art (a dreamy Turner), that he likes boxers, and that he most likely enjoys the ballet. One paragraph, and I already have a presumption about this person–or at least the narrator has conveyed his presumption about this person. It will be interesting to see whether this character validates that presumption, or whether he turns out to be something else entirely.



  1. This method is not surprising from Doyle — remember how many details we learn about the rooms Holmes and Watson share at 221B Baker Street.

    I still remember the prompt you had a while ago — that if somebody is a reader they must have a lot of books. I’ve got a story coming based on that idea.

    • So true that details like that aren’t surprising from Doyle. I love how he uses those details to fill out his character.

      Ooo, I look forward to reading your story about the book lover. Post a link when it is ready!

      • I do that sometimes, but I’m more likely to sprinkle the description throughout a story, rather than doing it all at once like that. That’s just a stylistic difference — I almost never stop for long descriptions of anything, unless they’re really unusual and have to be described right away (like here — click “Next” to read the next part, which contains the interior description).

        The book-lover story will be a while. I’ve spent most of this year so far writing a novella called Stevie One, which is nearly done. Then I have some editing projects that I want to work on. So, the new story (which will probably also be at least a novella) will be after that (as far as I know 🙂 ).

        So, let me plug Stevie One instead ( The book lover I’m thinking of is the detective character, but this story doesn’t involve her books (though her knowledge of books does come into it).

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