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Houses are People Too: The Structure of a Literary Device
by Geoff Hart

Return to Setting & Description · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When the archetypes, tropes, stage settings, stages, and other props of fiction grow boring and you lose enthusiasm for using them, your writing inevitably reveals this loss. The tropes and archetypes lose their mythic power and become mere clichés. The props become two-dimensional wallpaper, peeling off the walls, drawing attention to itself, and cluttering the stage -- rather than creating that stage, supporting your story, and giving it life. And the stage itself becomes a raised platform in a high school gymnasium rather than a medium for transporting your readers, however briefly, into another world. Fortunately, as generation after generation of fresh new writers continue to prove, re-examining the roles of flagging props can reinvigorate them. That happens whenever an author looks deep into a literary device, discovers why it still holds meaning for them, and refreshes interest in that literary device by evoking its essence in an entirely new way.

If you're not gifted with the ability to look this deep on your own and reinvent something, you can often achieve much the same effect by getting together with a few writer friends and brainstorming about the various literary aspects of a particular device. It may take a while to get rolling, but once you start feeding off each other's energy, you'll begin seeing familiar, shopworn props in sufficiently new ways that you'll regain your interest and see a way to do something special with the prop in a story. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing.

Houses exemplify this problem. So many of our stories originate in, are set in, or revolve around some form of house that the concept of a house becomes familiar, and that familiarity breeds a peculiar contempt, in which the house exists only in name, with no distinct character of its own. That's a shame, since houses can be as real as any other character in a story. To see how that works, consider the concept of house from three distinct, but strongly interrelated viewpoints: the concrete and physical, the psychological, and the purely symbolic. I'll discuss each of these aspects in turn, with an eye to showing how you too can look upon something as familiar as a house with a fresh eye, and in so doing, reinvent it. Once you understand the trick, you can apply it to any other literary device.

The physical house

In its simplest sense, a house offers a living space for your characters and plots, and what makes this simple, physical aspect of a house so important is that living has so many shades of meaning. Consider, for example, a select few of the word's cousins: existing, surviving, thriving, dying, working, loving, inhabiting, ignoring, tolerating, and (a little more abstractly) redecorating. Pioneers survive in a house, but the former breed of "dotcom" millionaires redecorated because they were too busy making money to actually live in their houses. Imagine how different these two types of character would be! Any good thesaurus will provide plenty of additional synonyms to inspire you about how your characters might live in that living space. And each of these verbs provides an entirely different insight into what kind of living space the house is, and what it says about the inhabitants.

How you describe a house says much about the people who inhabit it. Is the house excruciatingly tidy and ordered, or appallingly messy and unhygienic? Is it packed to the rafters with dusty antiques that are slumbering away the centuries, or furnished spartanly with gleaming modern multifunction appliances every bit as young as the new century that birthed them? Is the house so brand, spanking new that the paint has yet to dry and is littered with the corpses of moths that blundered into the sticky walls last night when you unwisely left the heat lamps on to speed the paint's drying, or so old that the paint and wallpaper applied by dozens of generations of inhabitants have added nearly an inch of insulation to the walls? Is the house robust enough to withstand a hurricane simultaneously with an earthquake, or would an injudicious footstep bring it down around your protagonist's ears? Does it bear its burdens in stoic silence, embodying the very soul of the word "endurance", or does it creak and groan and complain at each new demand placed upon it? Is it stiflingly hot in summer and numbingly cold in winter, deliciously cool in summer and cosily warm in winter, or does it remain at an unyielding, constant temperature year-round?

The answer to each question goes far beyond merely describing the house: it defines the people who inhabit the house. The kind of person who chooses to live in an excruciatingly tidy and ordered, spartanly furnished, brand new house designed to survive several natural disasters simultaneously will be very different from the person who lives in a chaotically disordered living space, packed from paint-thickened wall to paint-thickened wall with cobwebs and antiques so heavy that the floor threatens loudly to collapse at the sound of an argument or the weight of a silence -- and yet everyone knows it won't, because the floor's being held up by a century's worth of National Geographics in the cellar. And whether each new squeak and patch of mildew has been immediately corrected, or left in peace to grow worse, sheds considerable light on how your actors inhabit their stage.

Conversely, the type of people who inhabit a house can tell the reader much about the house itself. Highly sympathetic characters, with a warm and profound reverence for history and their past might inhabit an ancestral family home, lovingly preserved to keep memories and traditions alive, and renovated only enough to keep the walls standing because, as it the case for many a Victorian home, the upkeep lies beyond their means. You could completely invert this mood by placing resentful, unappreciative characters in an otherwise identical house; perhaps they see the house as something they'd love to "correct", but fear to do so because of its importance to someone else. (For example, the town's historical preservation society might refuse to let them bulldoze the house and replace it with a condominium development.) They will only grudgingly tolerate this house: it's nothing more than a place to stay until, by fair means or foul, they can tear it down and replace it with something more suitable. Those same angry, discontented, frustrated people may even be typical of a broader movement in society, represented by the hunger to demolish irreplaceable old things and start something new that will, in the end, satisfy them no more.

By stretching your imagination a bit further, you can establish a whole new set of tropes by realizing that the house in a modern novel can depart quite some distance from the traditional physical forms of a house (such as the "single-family dwelling"). Nowadays, a house could be a spaceship in which your astronaut protagonist must live for the next several years en route to a nearby star, a submarine that your characters must live in for the entire course of a war, a sailboat that lets a family withdraw from conventional suburban life for a year while they tour the globe -- or, at a considerably more low-tech extreme, a trash-littered alleyway with no amenities beyond a heating vent and a dumpster forgotten by the local department of sanitation. Houses need not even be fixed in space and time; sometimes you can carry a house on your back, such as the tent you'll live in for a year as you hike across the continent, the suit of armor worn by a knight errant, the space suit worn by your astronaut, a diver's wetsuit, or even a snail's shell if you're Doctor Doolittle.

And, of course, a house must still occasionally serve its traditional role as the physical skeleton that gives a place for the story's plot to happen, but even then, it need not be two-dimensional. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and Tara in Gone with the Wind both provide far more than a simple physical stage.

The psychological house

In every survey on stress, moving to a new home ranks high in the top ten most powerful stress factors. Why so traumatic? Because any house you've lived in becomes something much more than purely physical, more than just a box made of wood and plaster: it represents a home, which is a substantially more subtle and resonant concept. A home is the place you return to, and where you can escape or withdraw from the everyday world, with its myriad stresses, to be master of your own domain -- at least until the alarm clock rings and you must return to that outside world again. It's the place where, when you arrive, you are always welcome -- or, much more darkly, where they can't (or grudgingly won't) turn you away. That makes the house the source of a very powerful feeling of belonging, whether in the traditional and immediately familiar sense of family, or a more metaphorical expression of belonging to a group (for example, the assassins and thieves of Steven Brust's "House Jhereg" or the traders and triads of James Clavel's Noble House).

In a more sinister vein, a house can be something you return to like an addict returning to a drug, hating and fearing the need behind that return even as you long for the release it offers. The house can become your opponent or taskmaster, the creator of disorder and messes to be cleaned and a source of relentless, ongoing maintenance. It can psychologically become "a hole in the ground surrounded by wood into which one pours money or one's spirit". Tom Hanks and Shelley Long discover just how financially and emotionally draining a house can become in the movie The Money Pit. One can be "house rich but money poor", like Tom and Shelley, or so wealthy in cash but poor in spirit that you make Mr. Burns in The Simpsons seem happy; think Howard Hughes and you've got the picture. That same sinister house can be a place for something to hide in, like the spaceship in the movie Alien, or a place in which to hide something or someone, such as the mad wife in a gothic novel.

Houses also shed considerable light on the relativity of one's world view, and how our perspectives change as we mature. Houses always seem larger and more formidable when you're a child, no matter how objectively you try to measure them. For example, I'll always remember two things about my grandparents' original home, which I visited for about the first half-dozen years of my life: the driveway and the furnace. The breakneck slope of the driveway that my uncle always tried to coax me to descend on his skateboard is probably what has kept me off skateboards ever since. On the plus side, the evil firebreathing demon furnace that lurked in the basement provided a delicious sense of terror when my sister and I snuck downstairs, turned off the lights, and peered into the furnace room; that same experience probably helped attract me to writing about the fantastic. But when I returned to that home a few years ago, more than three decades after I'd last been there, I found a driveway with such a gentle slope you'd be hard pressed to roll a ball down it. On the other hand, the furnace remained a brooding old black-iron beast with a door for the coal that still reminded me disturbingly of teeth. There's a story or two lurking in that furnace, should I ever grow brave enough to write them.

In contrast to demonstrating relativity and the mutability of time, a house can instead serve as a time capsule, something seemingly eternal that remains forever the same while the world changes around it. Think of a maiden great aunt who keeps her Victorian furniture and furnishings scrupulously clean, and who still lights her home with gas. That same house can provide the battlefield for a protagonist's desperate struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity, or of the frantic struggle to "keep up with the Joneses" by replacing everything old with ever newer and more expensive appliances.

The symbolic house

When the physical and psychological worlds conflict, diverge, or reinforce each other, the energy of that interaction generates powerful symbolism. Powered by that energy, the house emerges as a symbol for something much greater than the sum of its parts.

Houses can serve as metaphors for memory (e.g., the Renaissance mnemonic trick of storing facts in different rooms of a "mental mansion"), for security and the sacrifices one must make to attain it (e.g., the horrible living conditions in a medieval castle), for reliability (e.g., the persistence of really old houses, which have weathered the ages), for family (whether good or bad), for imprisonment (e.g., for an agoraphobic protagonist), or for tormentors (e.g., haunted houses). The house can represent a source of mystery (e.g., the Gothic house), an animated character that blurs the boundary between life and nonlife (e.g., Ray Bradbury's and Arthur Clarke's fully automated, semi-sentient houses), a pornographic image (e.g., "come fill me"), a protector (against elements, thieves, or prying eyes), or a trap (one that lures you and feeds and shelters you in exchange for your relentless efforts to keep it healthy).

Just as the walls of a house can define or reinforce the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the house can breach those boundaries and bridge the two. In C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the house serves as a self-contained universe that holds the doorway between two worlds: our own world, where the protagonists are children, and the world of Narnia, where they are heroes. That literal doorway could instead be psychological, as in the case of the man who seems to be a pillar of his community, but who beats his wife in the privacy of the home.

Now think back to my comment about establishing new tropes. The growth of psychology over the past century has let us extend the boundary between the inner and the outer world to our own hearts and minds. In a very real sense, you can be a house yourself, since the body provides separate "apartments" for the heart and mind, or a single compartment that houses the soul (from the religious standpoint); it can also provide homes for multiple, conflicting urges (the Freudian concepts of ego, id, and superego), or even multiple personalities (as in the novel Sybil). Though these are largely psychological concepts, each also has important symbolic resonance, and gives a very different flavor to the phrase "single-family dwelling".

A house can serve as a microcosm of the outside world, as in the traditional patriarchal family home typified by Leave it to Beaver, which reflects the mores of its time so well. More fantastically, it can serve as the macrocosm of which all other realities are mere shadows, as is the case for Roger Zelazny's Castle Amber. You can perceive echoes or reflections of the society in which a house exists through careful observation: Is it energy-efficient, or cold and drafty? Does it have a library or a computer room -- or both? Is it equipped with a greenhouse, an exercise room, workshops, or a stable? Are pets welcome, or is nature kept at arm's length by unbreachable barriers? Does the bird feeder outside the dining room window represent an attempt to welcome the natural world back into our lives, mere window-dressing, or an unconscious effort to prove the owner is able to keep the natural world safely at bay? Does the house include a room for long-term boarders, as in many stories set early in the past century, or provide only a sofa bed that reluctantly serves as a resting place for occasional weekend visitors? What does the balance between public and private spaces say about social mores? These mores can be purely personal, such as the sauna in which the whole family gathers every Sunday to unwind, or more broadly societal, such as the class divisions manifested by a home that includes a separate space for servants.

These thoughts all became clear to me when I recently read Wuthering Heights for the first time. Much though I enjoyed the story and savored the quality of the writing, I got the strangest feeling of being stifled by the story's atmosphere, and had to periodically take long breaks before returning to the book. What does my reaction tell me about the society that shaped Emily Bront‘'s writing and the lives of her characters? Pay close attention to your responses to other literary houses, and you'll learn much that you can apply in your own writing.

Synthesis: a house is more than a stage

Although I've separated the physical, psychological, and symbolic aspects of a house to focus attention on each, you'll undoubtedly have noticed that each of these elements encroaches on and builds upon the others. That's no accident, since few things in our lives are ever simple and one-dimensional. Consider the story of someone who decides to renovate a house. The physical process of renovation could provide much of the overt plot for the story, and thereby provide a window into the renovator's mind. But even as these tangible aspects of the story progress and the house begins to change, the renovation serves as a broader metaphor for reinventing oneself: is the process truly a renovation (a fundamental change, whether an improvement or the remedy for a fatal flaw) or simply redecoration (surface or cosmetic changes that avoid real and serious issues)? In the same way, the ghosts who haunt a house can be real and overtly physical (poltergeists), psychological (manifestations of the inner demons that torment the inhabitants), or metaphorical (the ghost of true reality intruding upon the protagonist's internally constructed reality).

Complicated, huh? But it gets more complicated still, since someone, somewhere, has likely already written a story that makes use of each of these possibilities. But consider what happens when you move any of these ideas into an entirely new context. Change the single-family dwelling into a rocket ship and you have Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones. Change it into a remote cabin and you have Little House on the Prairie. And change it into a submarine and you have The Hunt for Red October or even 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Any of the aspects of "house" that I've described in this article holds the possibility of guiding you to something more interesting still.

Sure, a house seems boring. It's something we see and make use of every day of our lives, and that familiarity often leads us to ignore what that familiar object represents. In a very real sense, a house hosts all the functions of life, from birth and death (the nursery versus the sick room or deathbed) to the places we eat, excrete, make love, contemplate, do work, and store things. Far from boring us, the house should touch on and be touched by everything that makes us human. Those contacts with who we truly are makes for the stuff of great literature.

What roles will your next literary house serve?

Find Out More...

Blueprints: Building a Home for Your Characters, by Elizabeth Chayne
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/blueprints.shtml

Copyright © 2002 Geoff Hart
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Geoff Hart is an associate fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), and works as a writer, editor, translator, and information designer specializing in the sciences. With nearly 20 years of experience in scientific communication, he is a frequent contributor to the techwr-l (technical writing) and copyediting-l (editing) Internet discussion groups and to several STC newsletters. Visit Geoff online at http://www.geoff-hart.com/index.html. In his spare time, Geoff also writes speculative fiction.

 

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