In any environment, fictional or real, the following is true: no matter how costly and rich or poor and rundown, personal belongings in a scene are only necessary for what they say about the people who own them.
Why is this so? Let’s look at an example.
Consider the protagonist in a scene set in a kitchen.
I cross to sit at the table. In front of me are a laptop, a cup of tea, a notepad, and a pen. The white page of the notepad stares back at me, accusing, as if to say, “Write, you fool.”
But words elude me.
As a reader, what do you see?
You see the word kitchen and assume it is furnished with everything you think should be there. You assume there is a sink, a stove, a refrigerator…and so on. Instantly, it becomes a room you can understand. Yet only the tea, the table, the notepad, and the pen are mentioned. The code word, the one that triggers the mental picture, is kitchen.
If we mention how the dark, heavy furniture lends an atmosphere of gloom to the room, that’s all the description we need to offer. The reader sees the laptop, notepad, and pen, along with a cup of tea against a version of dark and heavy dining furniture. The style of furniture will be something the reader is familiar with.
We don’t need to explain any further.
Possessions that are mentioned give the reader clues about many things. Some things will show economic class and background, but all should hint at the owner’s personality. Are they neat or untidy? Fond of some sort of art? Are there a lot of books? Maybe they are fond of music.
Perhaps they are a person who cares about style, or maybe they don’t. Their possessions reflect their personal tastes.
So how is social class different from economic class? In some parts of the world, they are the same. In others, social class is inherited, and economic class is acquired.
When we meet them away from their environment, people’s social class can be hard to nail down just by looking at them. Behavior and manners are one clue, showing the standards and values a person was raised with, irrespective of their financial standing. You’d have to see their family and early lives to know their social class, if class matters to the story.
Most people from impoverished backgrounds are raised with good manners—politeness and respect are personal qualities everyone appreciates. People working in blue-collar jobs are curious about science and the world around them. They might love their work, but they may also value education and go out of their way to educate themselves. They might love all things NASA and look for science shows featuring space exploration.
Many rich families lose their money and social standing over the course of generations. Who they once were no longer means anything. Who they are is all that counts.
Many children who start life in poverty grow up to own expensive clothes and cars, earning them through hard work. So, if you mention a brand name with “cool” status, such as Rolex or iPhone, you are only scraping the surface of the person. You have to go a little deeper, look into their personal values.
Consider the table in our fictional kitchen. Is it a beautiful antique? Maybe it’s a high-quality table from a high-end furniture store. Could it be a secondhand table with mismatched chairs? Or is it a modern-looking matched set from the chain store that sells overpriced furniture on contract and advertises huge discounts on TV, the used-car-salesmen of the furniture world?
We have a good-quality but overpriced matched set in my real-life dining room. What can I say? We are suckers for flashy advertising.
How do we use furnishings to show personality, wealth, background, or class?
People from impoverished backgrounds may value nice things and take care of them because they understand how difficult it can be to acquire replacements. They purchase items as much for durability as for style.
Our personal background formed the first two decades of our lives, but that is all. Once we leave home, that is behind us. Over the next forty to eighty years, life shapes us, forms our likes and dislikes.
For instance, I grew up in a financially stable lower-middle-class family. But I never buy pre-distressed furniture, no matter how much the designers on TV love it. This is because, by the time my youngest child left home, all my hand-me-down furniture was distressed. I like my furniture to reflect my life—un-distressed.
The way a person dresses and sets out their possessions in their environment can be shown briefly. Clothing, even uniforms, can show personality, and objects can foreshadow things.
The following scene takes place on a starship. The crew is on a scientific mission:
Ensign Kyle Stone left his rooms and walked to Ensign Price’s door on the opposite end of the passage. He pressed the bell, and after a moment, the door slid open. He said, “I might be a bit early. Sorry.” “Kyle” was a name he’d like to lose. “Stone” was what he answered to.
“No problem.” Emma stood there, her uniform perfectly neat, as fresh as if they hadn’t just spent the morning wrangling with a broken levitor. “I’m not quite finished adding this morning’s notes to the brief, so if you don’t mind, I’ll get that done. Have a seat.” She turned and went to the little alcove that served as a study in all the quarters.
Stone sat and looked around, absently wondering how Emma had managed to make the same kind of utilitarian rooms all the unmarried personnel occupied feel so personal, so—lived in. The furnishings were exactly the same as his, built into the floor so you couldn’t rearrange things. Certainly, his quarters looked as personal as a hotel, with only his dirty laundry to show for his existence.
Yet Emma’s quarters had a feeling of permanence. Maybe it was the plants she had set in various places. He noticed a carved wooden box on a shelf above the entertainment console. Beside the box was a framed picture. She never mentioned family, never discussed her personal life. He was about to look more closely at it when she returned.
Emma said, “I uploaded it to Lieutenant Arrans, so we’re all set. Did you manage to find the schematic?”
Glad she hadn’t caught him snooping in her personal space, Stone said, “I did, and uploaded them. But I still doubt it’s what we need.”
Still talking, they left Emma’s quarters, heading to the small conference room.
What does the box signify? Who is in the picture? What did Stone’s observation of Emma’s tidy uniform and her plants tell you about her? How do these things relate to the larger story?
In a sci-fi story, just as in a contemporary or fantasy story, the way we use observations and visuals says a lot about our characters, things we don’t have to write out in detail.
Use these visual observations to your advantage.
Your assignment is this:
Invent two characters and write a short scene set in any room, any genre. Be selective in the visual items you mention and only mention the things the protagonist finds important.
Readers will extrapolate information from those items, clues that will build an entire picture in their imaginations, populating the space with many things you won’t have to mention.