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How to Design a Fictional House for Your Story

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

A property found in Louvain-la-Neuve, Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.

A property found in Louvain-la-Neuve, Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.

Creative Writing Strategies

For a lot of short stories and novels, a house will be the central place where your characters interact. A room is an extension of one's personality: it gives hints about what the character is like. A house is an extension of a family or group's personality: it gives hints about a collective.

Houses are a lot of fun to create for a story. I suggest writing up a document about your central location in your guide notes. I'm a big believer that creating notes for yourself—a kind of pre-production—will make the process of writing your novel smoother.

Pre-production is what you use to sort through notes, plan your plot, and design your characters. Production is when you write your novel. Post-production is when you go back to make edits and make sure everything works as a whole.

I'm using terms from filmmaking, but I think this can help you as a writer. It'll help you to be more serious about your work rather than approaching it aloofly.

A house is the keeper of secrets. It's where the actions of your characters take place. The house tells its own story.

A house is the keeper of secrets. It's where the actions of your characters take place. The house tells its own story.

Initial House Creation

For starters, you need to know how many people are living in your house, apartment, shack, mansion, etc. This will help you determine the size of your home, how many rooms you'll need, and how many beds. I would first design my characters, especially the main ones, before getting into designing their home.

You also need to decide where your characters live. Whether they're living in the United States, Mexico, Japan, or France, you'll need to have a good idea of what houses and living spaces are like in these countries. Does your character live in an urban area, in a suburban neighborhood, or out in a secluded place? Your house will likely get bigger the more you move out to the country or the more money your characters have.

I would suggest picking a particular place and then doing research in that area to find what kind of houses are there. You can, of course, buck the trend of your locale and create something entirely new or wild, like an abandoned castle, a haunted mansion, or a futuristic spire.

Special Genres

If your story takes place in a fantasy world, you'll want to work harder to develop the storyworld. The storyworld is the shared universe in which the characters, plot, and objects exist.

For a fantasy story, I would encourage you to make a map and decide where your characters' home resides. Lord of the Rings does an excellent job of creating a believable storyworld, particularly in creating living spaces for characters. You get a real sense of what Hobbit life is like.

Narratives that take place outside of our known reality will need a lot of background information developed. You'll have to consider a lot of elements like languages, modes of transportation, species, social systems, and more. Developing the setting of the story will help you nail down the storyworld.

Pretend Your House Is on Zillow

Zillow and other real estate sites can help you pin down some of the important questions about your characters' home. It's a good idea to look through listings of the town/city where your characters will live and scope out what residential properties look like.

In many of my articles, I've been using Walla Walla, Washington, as an example. I'm going to do that again today.

On Zillow, houses in Walla Walla are listed at every price point. There are homes dating back a couple of decades and new builds. A pink one-story house jumped out at me; the interior was much more traditional and plain.

I would encourage you to write down details of your story house like it would appear on a Zillow or other real estate listing.

  • Note the square footage.
  • List the number of bedrooms and bathrooms.
  • Price point.
  • Year the house was built.
  • Is the house on a cul-de-sac, a corner, or in the middle of the street? Is the house in the middle of nowhere?
  • Yard acreage.
  • Is the home based around open floor planning or lots of halls?
  • What is new and updated in your house, and what is old? What rooms are the most important ones to your characters?
  • Does your house have lots of storage and closets?
  • Is the yard fenced?
  • Note any pools, ponds, creeks, and gardens.
  • What is the exterior color of the house? What is the exterior material: siding, brick, stone?
  • One-story or two-story.
  • Wood flooring, carpet, tile, linoleum, or a mix of everything.
  • Size of the garage; storage space for cars.
  • Unusual amenities.

Use Google to Your Advantage

I would Google the phrase "what do houses in <insert town name> look like?" I did this for Walla Walla, and I got a description that it's an area with a dense suburban feel. Most residents own their homes. There are coffee shops, parks, and wineries in abundance. Young professionals are moving there to start families. It leans conservative, so a big flashy, and fascinating house with bright colors and pop art might not be the norm.

It's a good idea to look at polling information for both a town/city and its state. Even though Walla Walla leans to the right, Washington as a whole is considered a more democratic state. It's been that way since the late '80s. The numbers aren't drastic; you could make a case for people from both sides residing in the state. People won't be shocked when they run into someone with a different political viewpoint.

Look For Pictures

Google Images is your friend. It's also a good idea to search houses from your story's location on free picture sites like Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash.

There are a variety of house styles in Walla Walla. Some houses look like they were created by Frank Lloyd Wright, while others have a Victorian or turn-of-the-century vibe. I'm actually amazed by the variety of houses in this city.

It's a great idea to search for mansions or historic homes. Walla Walla, like many places, has a historic house tour. Websites like this are great if you're trying to get some inspiration.

So what do Walla Walla's historic homes look like? Many of the areas successful business people built their homes in Victorian, Italianate, and neo-classical styles starting in the mid-1850s. I'm mentioning this because I think it is important to note the age of the town/city you'll be focusing on in your story. If you have a city that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, there is a lot of history there for you to explore and use as inspiration.

Take things a step further: design blueprints for your story's main house or meeting place.

Take things a step further: design blueprints for your story's main house or meeting place.

Designing the House

You could create a blueprint of the house by hand on graph paper or use computer software to do it. One of my favorite ways is to use the video game Sims. The game will force you to come up with a layout or use a predetermined one.

This can be a helpful way to get the ball rolling and to really start thinking about where the rooms will be located, the scale of the house, and the income of your family. If you have a really dynamic and well-put-together house, your characters should have the money to afford it. Your characters' home should be appropriate to their lifestyles; they shouldn't be living below or above their means.

On Sims, you can pick different colors for walls and flooring, where to put windows and doors, and where to put furniture. This is an excellent way to create a 3-D blueprint of your characters' home. You can also create models of your characters and have them play, work, and everything else in the house.

I would consider what the style of your characters is. Whether they're more into something rustic, minimalistic, gothic, contemporary, futuristic, trendy, and the likes. I find it's fun to build templates around people's zodiac signs.

Sims can help you get a general idea of what you want for your story. Obviously, when you're writing your story, you're not going to hash out every detail of the characters' living space. You want to create notes for yourself to use as a reference. This way, when you're getting into the thick of writing, you can look at your notes and determine whether your story is making sense or not.

Don't write an entire chapter (or 10) discussing all the minutiae of a home. People are reading your work to get a good story, not to get lost in an advertisement for a spacious ranch house in Colorado Springs from 1962.

Take a Trip to a Home Improvement Store

Whether you go to Lowe's, Home Depot, or Menards, the goal is to get inspiration for your novel. I would do this after building a blueprint of your home because these types of stores will help you to focus on specifics.

Look around the store and see what's modern. Maybe there are new trends that you should look into. Take home some paint swatches or countertop guides that you can have some exact colors to work with. There are two reasons why you should get these things: (1) they're normally free, and (2) these stores often have fun names for colors and materials.

While walking around the store, try to think what your characters would buy and install into their home. Also, are your characters handy? Do they know how to set up these things, or will they need to hire someone?

This is a great place for you to go and stretch your legs. Browse through every and any aisle. You'll get a lot of inspiration for this imaginary house when you directly look at curtains, fans, light fixtures, doorknobs, and plants. You can also go to these places and do some brainstorming for your own living space.

Turn Your TV on to HGTV

While writing your guidebook, or while writing in general, turn on HGTV. You might get some inspiration from the channel. You can also find plenty of videos from the network on YouTube—or just home improvement and interior design videos in general.

If you have Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming sites, there is usually a category for home and gardening. All of this makes for easy TV watching and background noise while you try to piece together your story. Sometimes you might be lucky, and there might be a show or set of videos related to the exact town you want to write about.

Try typing into YouTube the name of the town/city where your story will take place and "houses" or "apartments." If you're lucky, you might get a feel for houses and apartments in the area.

House Cleanliness

If I walked into your characters' home, what would I see? Your characters will tolerate a certain level of cleanliness. It's important to know how well your characters take care of a place. It says a lot about them.

Here is a cleanliness ranking system to help you determine where your characters fall:

1. Unlivable/Ruins: Electricity and water are not up to code. Trash doesn't get picked up. There are safety violations everywhere. The place smells really bad. A slumlord would offer this space up for rent. It's unlivable. It should be torn down. New diseases could be forming here. This is a place for someone with really bad credit.

2. Filthy: The actual structural bones of the place exist. The tenants or owners don't stay on top of chores. The place smells bad; the carpets are stained, there are cracks in the foundation, and there are broken bottles and glass. This could be a shared space between frat brothers or the creepy hideout of a villain.

3. Beige: There is very little color or variation in the walls and flooring. Painters went through and painted everything beige. It looks kind of dirty, but it also looks bland. There is a hint of mold in the air. The home appliances are not up to date; they're a few decades old. There are a lot of repairs that need to be done, but things are holding together. It looks like a really cheap and small house. It's affordable.

4. Functional but Cluttered: The house is in overall good condition, but the owners or tenants are so busy that they fall behind on chores. There are piles of papers in places with no organization or any sign of urgency. Dishes are stacked up in the sink. Laundry is sprawled out on the floor as if it is flooring. People can still get by with their day. There are no serious problems. It's just cluttered and busy.

5. Moderately Clean: This is probably where the majority of people fall. People go after chores, they update things when needed, and the house has a happy demeanor. It doesn't smell bad, but there are things around the house that could be better with more intentionality. Unmade beds, idle laundry, toilets that have gone a few weeks without a cleaning, and dust behind the TV. It's the middle-class dream.

6. On Top of It: The house has a regular cleaning schedule. It's not necessarily spotless, but chores don't fall to the wayside. People are actively going around the house and seeing what needs to be done, including mechanical repairs, cleaning responsibilities, and seasonal issues. The place smells clean. It looks orderly. Things are efficient.

7. Spotless: The spotless house is taken care of to the best degree. Maids might be hired to take care of things. Marie Kondo might live here. People are very smart about their property, and they make sure it looks like it is in good condition. It's not necessarily the place of someone wealthy, but it is the place of someone who respects the property.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence