Home may be where the heart is, but what exactly is a home? Is it four walls? Or where a person feels safest, surrounded by friends?
Those are great philosophical questions that I’m not going to answer. Instead, I’m going to focus on tips for writing characters who live in apartments versus characters that live in houses.
For apartment-dwelling characters, it’s important to remember neighbors. I’ve lived in four different apartment complexes in the last five years and in every single one, I’ve heard neighbors yelling, fighting, fucking and watching TV. The YouTube mini-series Missed Connections starts when main character Jamie overhears large-scale machinery sounds coming from her neighbor.
Neighbors also come with smells. When I lived in Salem, my neighbors’ pet parrot died and they left the dead bird in its cage for two days (that’s 48 hours!) before the landlord made them remove it. For weeks, the hallway stunk worse than your mom’s cooking. That’s another to remember – cooking. My current neighbors are Asian-American and every once in awhile, I can smell them cooking the most delicious-smelling, meat-based meal I’ve never had the chance to eat. It’s the smell equivalent of a shirtless Tyler Hoechlin running.
And remember, no one chooses their neighbors and while home-dwelling have the ability to run and hide, tenants always have to suffer through living in the same building as a weirdo. Use this to give your minor characters some life – make them be mineral collectors obsessed with what jewerly your main character wears or a pipsqueak who can’t open jars and is constantly annoying the hero to crack up a cold one (of pickles).
Another big difference for renters is laundry. In a house, the washing machine and dryer are (usually) in the basement or a side room. Everyone else has to lug their dirty clothes to a laundromat or to the coin-operated machines in the building. This may seem like a tiny detail, but at least 45% of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog takes place in the local laundromat.
LIVIN’ AT HOME
Homeowners face entirely different circumstances. Primarily: the maintenance and upkeep of a home is solely on the owners. Broken fridges, backed up toilets and even burnt out light bulbs are only fixed when the owners do the work needed to repair them. This may mean calling a plumber – but it can also lead to the wacky antics that have become a staple in the comedy genre.
Another factor for homeowners is their neighbors. Unlike apartment complex neighbors who are always involved, yet rarely invited, people in houses befriend their neighbors – or have epic feuds with them. There’s a million and a half stories about homeowners battling with their neighbors (anyone else’s mind just flash to Neighbors and Neighbors 2?). In season 2 of Orphan Black, the clones needed to navigate a monthly house party when Allison gets blackout drunk. It’s a simple idea but it resulted in some amazing scenes.
Lastly, houses are bigger than apartments. Utilizes this to give your characters space to do stuff in their homes. Have extra bedrooms turned into craft rooms or man caves. A living room is the perfect place for a shootout with enemy spies! What’s the point of a basement if it isn’t haunted? Characters with houses live at home – some of the action has to take place there.
If you have a hard time conceptualizing a house’s layout, there are a couple of good resources available online. The Plan Collection is a website filled with blueprints that you can even customize! The website, along with Plan Source, was designed for construction crews, but you should take advantage of it when home-building.
Remember, the goal of these details is twofold: forward the plot and add a sense of realism to the piece. I’ve read hundreds of short stories set in big cities where the main character interacts with their next door neighbors. Sometimes it’s just a passing detail to set the scene, other times it’s so the character can have a conversation that becomes vital later in the prose.
If your tale takes place in a fantasy world, craft your story to involve these details with minor characters. If the travelers sleep in a friendly villager’s place, have them notice a broken roof or overgrown weeds. Or if the main character is chasing after aliens in New York, have them question if the overwhelming scent of cooked cabbage is something more than Russian tenants.
Details make the book – so don’t forget the little things while you’re crafting an epic tale.