Sunday, February 20, 2011

What "Home" Means - to Your Characters and your Story

What is home? What "says home" to you? What does "home" mean?

I came across this link on Twitter today, and the moment I started reading it, I knew I'd have to talk about it. Here's a quote from Melissa Crytzer Fry's post:

Home … what defines it? Grandma’s old farmhouse? The whirr of traffic buzzing past the highway in front of your childhood home? Pepsi in a glass bottle from the upright dispenser in Uncle Bob’s auto shop, tugged from its individual, circular cubby behind the swinging glass door? The bleating horns of cabs in front of your urban apartment? The aroma of the Italian bakery on the corner? Family dinners around a bonfire? The dusty smell of soaked creosote bushes after a desert rain?

What I love about this post - and about the comments that follow it - is that it gets people writing down the sensory perceptions that they associate with this highly emotional concept. Because that's what "home" is. It's a fundamental emotional concept that we've learned, and once we've established it, it continues to exist at our core. As Melissa and her commenters remark, sometimes the concept of home can be expanded, or can be associated with more than one location. What she also points out is that it's fundamental to a writer, and can have enormous influence on a writer's stories.

What I'd like to point out is that it's not just fundamental to a writer. It's fundamental to every character in your story. Do you feel different when you're away from home? More scared? More free? Sure - and so will your characters. Furthermore, the stranger your characters are, the more unexpected their concept of home may be. When Bilbo wants to comfort himself, he thinks about teatime at his home in the hobbit-hole. Frodo thinks of the Shire too - and the contrast between their emotional roots and the adventures and terrors they're going through add an amazing amount of dimension to the stories we read. Mind you, if it were me, I'd like to know what Legolas and Gimli think of as home, too... and Gandalf. Why not?

Particularly if you're getting into a character's head, think about "what means home" to this person. Maybe they don't have a home. But if they don't, does that mean that "home" turns into an idea that other people push on them, something that causes them anger? That knowledge is still valuable.

Melissa Crytser Fry mentions that there are writers who write only stories that occur in their own home settings. When we write science fiction and fantasy... um, we're not doing that. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from what those writers accomplish. Take a look at how the commenters in this post speak of their own homes (this ties back to my post Interviewing Characters? Interview Yourself!). Your human characters will likely have a home that they think about in a very similar way, and which they compare to their current experiences. Even your alien or fantasy-race creatures probably have a concept of home. If you can capture it, and capture how your characters think about it, then it will bring depth and realism to even the most far-out speculative fiction.

It's something to think about.


  1. This is so interesting. My characters' concepts of home tend to be somewhat... warped.

    Never thought of it like this, but it's something they all have in common.

    One of these days I'll have to find another way to say thanks.


  2. Misha, I appreciate your comments - don't worry about it. I'm glad to be of help.

  3. Thoughts of home can also be a way to differentiate your characters in your own mind, too. There's little more individualised then what triggers those nostalgia buttons.

  4. Juliette - Thanks so much for your warm reception of my post. I LOVE how you expounded upon it in this post. I think the suggested exercise to apply concepts of home to character development is so worthwhile. And while fantasy "homes" shouldn't exactly mirror our own concepts of home, it's a very astute observation that such knowledge can lead to a much more vibrant sense of fantastical setting (and knowledge of character).

    I will be perusing your site in greater detail. What I see so far is GREAT stuff. Thank you so much for reaching out.

  5. Shannon, thanks for commenting!

    Melissa, I'm thrilled that you stopped by, and I'm so glad you enjoyed my thoughts about your post. The idea of home is, I think, a wonderful resource for understanding character and world, and how they intersect. You're welcome to take a look around... I appreciate it! Thanks so much.

  6. I love those "memories of home" scenes both as a reader and a writer. They tell us so much about where our characters come from.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. There is a lot of criticism of Asimov's FOUNDATION series, but it is one of my favorites. One of the reasons is what you point out in this post. The vision of the characters "homes" be they on the world-sprawling city-planet Trantor, way out on the metal-poor Terminus; or even in the Second Foundation, the characters are familiar with their homes, comfortable there, and provide vivid images of their homes.

    This was so striking for me that whenever I re-read the series, I wish desperately that of all possible futures, Asimov's vision in Foundation is what comes to pass ten thousand years or more from now. When I read those books, I _feel_ like I'm at home.

  8. Thanks for the comment, Terry!

    Jamie, good point - and though I read FOUNDATION a long time ago, I think I remember that gut feeling you speak of. I definitely remember being impressed. Thanks for the comment!