Exploring Characterization using Oblique Details

Let’s take a character and put these items on their nightstand:

Scattered dried yellow rose petals

Whiskey filled shot glass

Reading glasses

One dog-eared book of baby names

A bottle of Melatonin

One bottle of extra strength Tylenol

Lavender pillow spray

.38 special revolver

A brass lamp with a torn yellowed lampshade

A small silver battery operated alarm clock

After reading the list of items, did you start to picture this character? Who they might be? What may be going on in his/her life?

Some of you may fill out character profile questionnaire or form. Some of you may make collages, or use other means to create your character. Here is another idea (or layer) you can use to enrich you character. By thinking about what is on their table or nightstand (refrigerator, car trunk, purse etc.)

These oblique details ground the scene in sensory imagery making it feel real to the reader. Of course you do not (and should not) use every item that you think your character may have or it will lose its value.

But you (as a writer) should know as many intimate details about your character as you can. It is like back-story – you occasionally sprinkle out pertinent details for the reader as needed rather than doing an information dump.

You can also weave in these items in a scene. For example, maybe your heroine’s alarm rings. With her eyes half closed she fumbles to turn it off. Stretching her arm to the table- pushing aside the .38 which knocks over her bottle of melatonin sending the whisky glass crashing on the cement floor.

Just use enough detail can make the scene come alive. You can do the same for any scene- add a detail (or two) which can make the reader connect to the scene- to your character thereby enriching the story.

What Oblique Details do you use to explore characterization?

~~~Lois Lavrisa

Lois Lavrisa writes Mystery with a Twist. Her first mystery, Amazon Top 100 Bestselling and Amazon Hot New Release, LIQUID LIES, is set in an affluent lake town in Wisconsin, and asks the question “Would you tell the truth, even if it meant losing everything?”

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  1. Sibel Hodge says:

    Great post. I’m always doing this – I think it’s such fun and makes your characters much more three-dimensional. :)

  2. Love this! Sometimes it’s the brand of product someone uses. Kind of car they drive. How they react to someone else’s specific details that can reveal so much.

  3. I love this post. I had a running joke in my book about the ice cream that was (or wasn’t) in the heroine’s freezer. It was always disappearing because either she or her brother would eat it when they had a crisis and they’d have to buy more. I also have a scene where the hero compares himself to his best fiiend because the hero’s not a neat freak and his friend is because he keeps his car and his wallet very neat.

  4. I love this. I frequently inadvertently employ the element of surprise, and surprise myself by what items show up in scenes and give clues to my characters. Not only do they give a richer experience to the end-product reader, they enrich my experience, too, as the first-first reader. Win-win. ;-)

  5. Great post, Lois! So important to remember this. And such a good way to reveal our characters to ourselves as writers as well as using it for readers.

  6. SK Holmesley says:

    I like to use food. When I was growing up and when I was raising my son, most of our conversations as a family took place at meals. Otherwise, we were off doing our own thing. So, a lot of my characters showing who they are takes place at various meals, and includes their food likes and dislikes. They will tease each other about or placate each other with favorite dishes. When we would visit, my grandmother used to make fried okra for my brother and me. It was our absolute favorite. We would each help ourselves with a polite sized serving, then anxiously watch the serving dish as it went around the table, hoping that there’d be some left. There always was, of course, and we’d claim the serving bowl and split what was left. No one ever made fried okra as good as my grandmother and I still remember that she would make it especially for us and still tend to use food as the simplest way to show caring.

  7. Dawn Turner says:

    I’ve used a character’s junk drawer. We all have one (or more *G*). What does that person keep in it? Is it neat and tidy so he/she can reach in and grab exactly what he/she is looking for without hardly looking, or a complete mess that requires digging and searching to MAYBE come up with what’s being sought?

    Another is towels. Does he/she leave towels on the floor after a shower/bath? Or use the towel bar? Hang it over the curtain shower rod?

    • Lois Lavrisa says:

      Dawn- yes I love your details- towels ion floor and the junk drawer. Hmm a weeding ring in the junk drawer what would that say about your character? :)

    • SK Holmesley says:

      Oh my. We have one junk drawer in the kitchen and everyones have to find quickly items (batteries, pens, rubber bands, take-out menus, etc.) items are in there. Which, of course, means no one can find anything quickly and sometimes not at all. It’s such a horror, I try not to think about it. But what a good idea for character development. I know that I feel my own character developing every time I have to find something in there. :-)

      • Lois Lavrisa says:

        SK- I am loving the junk drawer idea as well Thanks Dawn (and a typo in my comment- I meant what would it say about the character if there was a wedding ring in the junk drawer not weeding ring:))

  8. Alison Pensy says:

    Great post Lois. I’d never really thought about it like that before. It’s fun to have a new perspective to explore :-)

  9. Timely post … I’m looking at my setting of a pre-Sumerian house in 3,500 B.C. … hmmm … what kinds of things does my heroine keep next to her raised sleeping pallet besides her obsidian blade and the yellow-clay chamber pot in the corner? I should write some of those details in. :-)

  10. JT Lewis says:

    Awesome technique for hashing out some of a character’s essence! I had never thought of using something such as a bedside table or car trunk, but that is a great way of “feeling” your character’s layers!

  11. Thia is a really fun post — I love all of the different ideas. And I’m thinking of the difference between my hero’s wallet and mine — LOL (and he probably has more money than I do at the moment, too).

  12. My protagonist always places her little dog, Teddy, on a towel at the foot of her bed; takes a hot bubble bath at night; spritzes herself with perfume before retiring at night so she’ll have pleasant dreams; and always orders half-portions at restaurants to keep her figure trim. She serves afternoon tea to friends and characters in the stories, and prays to God for direction and help whenever she doesn’t know what to do, or faces danger.

    Is this a real Christian lady or what?

    ~Nancy Jill

    • Lois Lavrisa says:

      Nancy- cute idea of Teddy and her nighttime ritual – love it. Hmm I always spritz lavender on my pillow before bed and then read for a while, apply chapstick, and face, neck and hand cream. Take one melatonin and always have a glass of water (and a stack of books) on my nightstand.

  13. What a wonderful way to view characters! Thanks for this concept. I will be putting it to use.