What’s on the Fridge?: A Character Writing Exercise

Image courtesy of Karen Arnold on publicdomainpictures.net

A common piece of writing advice when it comes to characterization is to show rather than tell. But how do we do that? I have created an example scenario with one possible way to do this for your characters. This is by no means the only way to characterize someone, but this is one possible tool.

I was editing my novel when I took a quick trip for a coffee refill. I opened the fridge for the almond milk that I use as a creamer (See One Poo at a Time if you want to know why I use that instead of regular milk).

While doing this, I really looked at my fridge for the first time in a while. I thought about how it might look to another person, maybe somebody who didn’t know me. It inspired this character-building exercise.

Let’s look at what’s on my fridge together. I’m going to use this as an exercise to show how something as simple as this can explain so much about a character.

Things on my fridge:

  • Family photos
  • A Medela magnet that shows how long breast milk stays unspoiled at different temperatures
  • A magnet showing the poison control phone number
  • A stack of unfilled recall slips for various baby products (3+)
  • Two scanned sheets of baby food recipes from a book

I’m going to pretend that I’m not talking about myself and make up some explanations for what these things could say about me (These guesses may or may not be true!).

The family photos show that I’m a woman with a family and a child.

Secondly the Medela magnet shows that I’m breastfeeding. If you were writing me as a book character, maybe you’d think I value natural things and that I’m a little bit of a “crunchy” mom.

The poison control number posted on the fridge probably shows that I’m safety-minded. The unfilled recall slips say the same thing, except they could say something else as well, since they haven’t been filled out or sent off yet.

The fact that I’ve collected the 3+ recall registration slips means that I value safety, at least in theory. However, why aren’t they filled out by now?

Maybe I’m not very organized or I’m just busy. Maybe I hate filling out paperwork, even the easy kind. Maybe I’m extremely forgetful. Maybe I’m not actually all that worried about recalls, but I feel like I should turn them in anyway, so they sit on the fridge for weeks with good intentions but no follow-through. Maybe I’m just really overwhelmed with tasks (many new moms are!).

The baby food recipes can also tell you a few things, especially combined with the Medela magnet that tells you I’m breastfeeding. I may be an overachiever mom. The person who put these things up wants to breastfeed and make her baby’s food from scratch, which suggests she cares a lot about the way things are done in regard to her child.

However, where it might get interesting is in the speculation. Seeing the stack of unfilled forms, would we wonder if this character actually makes all of her baby’s food? Does she have time for that? Or is it just another good intention?

Now let’s put the character in a situation. Let’s say someone the character knows tries to give her baby a taste of a new type of store-bought baby food while the character isn’t around and without her permission. She finds out about it later. How do you think the character might react, just based on what you have seen here?

She would probably freak out a little, right? Based on what we know about the character being very concerned about her son’s feeding and safety?

Are you starting to see how these simple things, like the state of one’s fridge, can give insight to a character?

Here are some other ideas of things you can look for and describe in a character’s home to help characterize them. Describe the things:

  • Hung on the walls
  • Saved to the desktop of their computer (also overall cleanliness, order, or disorder)
  • On their desk (objects, style, cleanliness, order, disorder)
  • On their coffee table – also could be any other furniture around the house (objects on, tidiness, dust or shine, books)
  • In the medicine cabinet – self-explanatory!
  • In/on their front or back lawn, if the character has one.
  • Said in their  bumper stickers (I realized when writing this that I missed a valuable opportunity to include this for some of my book characters!)

To try this exercise out, just choose one of these areas and start describing it with one of your characters in mind.

Have fun, and if you complete the exercise feel free to share your lists in the comments!



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