characters / descriptors / Setting / writers resources

How to Describe a Character’s Neighborhood

Does a dog make the neighborhood?A character’s neighborhood provides the opportunity to tell us about him/her without narrative. People live where they’re comfortable, so how you describe the protagonist or antagonist’s home town will reflect his values, beliefs, passions.

When your character is out and about, take the opportunity to describe his neighbors, what he notices around him, the traffic–vehicles and foot, the flora and fauna, the rhythm of his world. Does he live amidst spreading estates or in a cluttered old apartment complex? Are homes stately and old or nouveau riche?

The descriptions I’ve included below are from novels I’ve read. I hope you like them:

  • Buildings were tan stucco and wood slat, built around grassy knolls
  • It thrived as people went about their daily business, some walking or packing loads, others pounding corn in hollow mortars. The sound of shrieking children mingled with flute music. The slanted morning light gave everything a hazy look as it passed through the moist air.
  • The quiet of an older neighborhood
  • The town seemed to pulse with life and excitement
  • A short, squat tower topped by a wide, gently sloping octagonal roof
  • I’d tell you the paint was peeling, but it’d be more accurate to tell you it was shedding
  • It looked like a nice place to live. An older woman with wispy white hair eased a Hughes Market cart off a curb and across a street. She smiled at a man and a woman in their twenties, the man with his shirt off, the woman in an airy Navajo top. They smiled back. Two women in jogging suits were walking back toward Hoover, probably off to lunch at one of the little nouveaux restaurants on Clasper. A sturdily built Chicano woman with a purse the size of a mobile home waited at a bus stop, squinting into the sun. Somewhere a screw gun started up, then cut short. There were gulls and a scent of the sea.
  • Home. Eight acres of scrub and savanna, a pasture and paddock, a pond, a stream, avocado, lemon and orange trees loaded with fruit.
  • Fair-sized house built of red Lyons Sandstone with the most god-awful-looking picket fence I’d ever seen.
  • He stared up at the arch, knew little of the history, only the name. It was yet another symbol of a glorious empire that had collapsed into the dust of this desolate place. What armies have you seen? He thought. How many generals have passed beneath you, expecting their accomplishments to stand like this, a monument to history?
  • Small upstairs apartment on Newport Island, a tiny piece of land accessible only by a bridge so narrow, it would admit just one car at a time.

If these snippets don’t speak to you, I understand. That’s the beauty of literature–there’s room for every description. I’d love to hear yours.

For more descriptors for characters and settings, click here.

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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24 thoughts on “How to Describe a Character’s Neighborhood

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      • If someone is writing about a location where I’ve lived or traveled and they get something glaringly wrong, I lose faith in the writer almost immediately. To me, it means they haven’t done their homework.I know I overwrite descriptions and have to go back and cut out paragraphs.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Me too–about the losing trust in the author. Sure, it is fiction, but for us to willingly suspend our disbelieve requires buy-in. I just finished a book that didn’t do that well. I ended up not believing the plot points, either.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oops, if the plot points are doubtful, what’s left to hang onto in a story? I’ve often wondered if some of us [myself included] take it for granted that our characters can do that which seems impossible to our reader and that of course leads to setting up the plot points without carefully considering what your audience may or may not know. I end up frustrated. The last 3 books I tried to read fell apart in the middle and all 3 were authors I like to read. I know my concenetration is off with Tom being ill but on the other hand, the novels weren’t complex thrillers.

            Liked by 1 person

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  11. My favorite:
    I’d tell you the paint was peeling, but it’d be more accurate to tell you it was shedding.
    The writer made a character out of the scene.
    I think my descriptions of places are one of my strong writing points, but I really enjoyed reading these and seeing the photos – gave me lots to think about.
    You not only encourage us to write better, you give us great examples to inspire us. Thanks, Jacqui.


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