This question has come up a lot in several of the writing groups I belong to. New writers, especially have issues building a world and describing characters.
So, the way I do it is to become the MC of the scene. I get inside my character’s head. Usually, the first thing for me is a name. For this example, I’ll just call him John. Human, nine to fiver, lives in a one-bedroom off Orange Ave, manages a gym. (I’m honestly just plucking details from the air, and winging this, really, so for the sake of this explanation. I’m not diving too deep into the economics of the current times. This is fiction, and I can set this anywhere I want. It’s my story.)
So, John is at a bar. It’s Friday night, around ten-thirty. People are filling the street outside and making their way into the building. His favorite bartender is making drinks tonight. Her name is Tristan, and he likes her because she once helped him out with a bad date. John’s a regular in this bar, and this is the kind of place where they look out for one another.
So, the MC is John.
When is this happening? Friday night, 10:30 pm
Where is he? his favorite bar I’ll call Tilly’s off the top of my head.
What is he doing there? Well, on this particular night, he’s just looking to be around people who know him and are nice to him. (Pretty bland reason, but it’s normal. People do that and I want John to be relatable to the reader.)
As the writer, I know all of this about John, even if it doesn’t go into chapter 1.
I also know where he is- what his world looks like, and will share it through John’s perception. I am currently John. I’m sitting on the hardwood barstool that makes my back hurt when I slouch. With each shot of chilled tequila, the ice numbs my nerves and sets fire to my belly. The second burn is cooler than the first.
Tristan’s got her phone hooked up to the sound system, and tonight she’s feeling happy- all is right with her world, and Nicholas Petricca is dancing through my head as he sings. Walk The Moon is her favorite band.
Three regulars are taking up the stools to my left, who I call Cap, Bow-Tie, and Vest in my mind. The trio pays rent for those stools every Friday night and bet on cards as they discuss their favorite authors. Tonight the subject is poetry. Bow Tie knows all the words to the song and is singing to himself as Vest and Cap argue about Poe.
Tristan hollers as one of her favorite people walks in the door, and brings with him a crowd of twenty or so. They rush to the bar, all talking at once, and I hold my breath because the perfumes and colognes don’t blend.
As the writer, to tell the story and get all those details in there, you have to be the MC if you want to connect the reader to the story. These details about John will help me- I know what he sees, hears, smells, and how sloshy he’ll get on that stool. This will be his home for a couple of hours, and he never really has to say a word.
He could listen to the conversations around him and build the world outside the door, or, the whole story can take place right there.
I haven’t told the reader what he looks like because he isn’t looking at himself. I’ve given minimal descriptions of the people around him- Tristan has a personality and hasn’t said a word. I’ve given that through her choice of music, and that John knows she’s happy based on her music tastes.
The trio at the bar are intellectuals who like to drink and gamble. They are also defined by their clothing- Cap, Bow Tie, and Vest. These are things John has observed about them, and never change.
For the moment, this is the world. These side characters make up the world. The crush rushing up to the bar, smothering him in perfumes and cologne, make up the world.
If I keep in mind who I am in this scene, where I am, what I’m doing there, and what information I need to get to move to the next scene, it breaks the world down into bite-sized chunks for the reader.
If you have more than one MC- define each one. Who are they, what are they doing? why are they doing it? Keep them separated. Make them different people.
I become the MC for each scene, and take a moment to define them.
I won’t get into writing styles. We’re all different, and the writer has to determine how they put their words together. You’ll notice, I mixed descriptions into the notes and substituted sloshy for drunk, and showed how the tequila affected John.
This is part of me ‘getting into character’. I will flesh a character out more later- and probably never mention his hair color- eye color- height- build- unless it adds to the story in some way. I haven’t even decided at this point what John is wearing.
For me, getting into John’s head has more to do with what’s he’s experiencing and not what he looks like.
When I finish a scene, I read it back and ask myself if it pulled me in, can I see it, feel it, hear it, taste it, smell it? Was I surprised, did I find anything cool, did it make me sad? Do I need to move details around? Have I grouped like things with like things?
Aside from grammar- those are my edits for the rough draft. I can expand and flesh the scene out later. My first thought and hope is to always ground the reader in the scene. I know that if I ground my character, then my reader will follow.