The House as Character

Italianate style: Low-hipped roof with overhanging eaves. They usually have a vertical emphasis and often have the rounded or segmental “Roman” arch openings.

I love houses. I love to write about them. Houses heavily influence my fiction because they so easily become characters. Sometimes the house in my book insists on upon development, an emotional arc. It wants me to tell my readers its age and to describe it, warts, mold and all. As a fictional device, a house is a valuable character coming in with mystery, history and best of all, secrets, secrets that it shares with a human being, or a pet, or a fallen tree. A fire.

The character house can be of any type, but it’s helpful if it fits the story. A one-story mid-century ranch can harbor a lot of secrets. A tiny, tidy bungalow, with original built-ins and one stained-glass window, can be as alluring and mysterious as a fairy or an angel. Even a stick-built, two story suburban cookie-cutter of a house, new construction, one of hundreds in a labyrinthian development, may harbor evil.

18th century manors, medieval castles, desert palaces, and mountain-top oriental citadels are all intriguing, but I’ve been exploring our new town, an obscure metropolis in the middle of Oregon. Albany, named after Albany, New York by its founders in the early 19th century, is said to be the town with the most variations of 19th century architecture in the state.

Albany’s historical district, a grid of wide, tree-lined streets and well watered lawns, is a collection of dozens of such houses. No two are alike, except for a scattering of ranch homes or workers bungalows built on spec by the same builders. What follows are brief descriptions, published in the Albany Visitor’s Association’s “Seems Like Old Times” brochure, available for a free download on their website, of houses I have loved writing about.

Colonial Revival: A revival of interest in the heritage of 18th century America began during the Centennial celebration of 1876.

In a contemporary romance I’m working on, the old farm house inherited by a brother and sister clamors for a bigger part. Higher pay and bonuses, too, I assume. In the first draft I hadn’t planned much for the house and it let me know that my attention to it was inadequate. So, toward the end of the book, when the house discovered I was going to use it for a wedding, it had a fit, and began to demand to be transformed into a Colonial Revival. I’ve gotta re-write the thing, any way, so no big deal.

In my Book View Café publication Finding the Eye, Dante the Time Mage’s house is extremely magical, almost sentient. I fashioned it after what I now know is a Stick and Eastlake style house on Rainier Avenue in Seattle, a mysterious, solo house in the International District that is long gone now.

Stick and Eastlake: Porches and balconies are common and have many Eastlake elements such as turned columns, spools, spindles and round disks applied for decoration.

For Witch’s Child, the key house is a burned hulk, important as a portal to an underground world and central to the wizard Vesuvio’s influence over the little village of Escudillo, with its own strange proclivities.

There is a plenitude of sinister houses in the fiction of Shirley Jackson and both the Bronte sisters and many, many others, including multiple children’s books about haunted, abandoned houses.

Describing houses in fiction is more than simple grounding. It conveys character perception and emotion. The house is a snapshot of a scene or episode, and likely a place one or more characters will never forget. And if you are, like me, an author of people in communities with their own personalities, you’ll need to know the houses that make up that community, and listen when they tell you what you’re doing wrong.

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About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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The House as Character — 4 Comments

  1. Deborah Harkness’s Bishop House in Massachusetts is one of the most memorable house as character. It’s by far my favorite character in the All Souls series, with deep intrinsic interest as itself — quite unlike the aristo castle of the vampires filled with ghosts. We’ve all been there, done that a million times in fiction and on screen.

    Probably though, the most famous house as character is Shirley Jackson’s Hill House?

  2. A friend used to live on Cape Cod. Her house began as a typical New England salt box, 3 rooms down, 2 up around a massive hearth and chimney used for cooking. The staircase was STEEP. The appraiser dated the chimney to 1720. But each generation expanded. In the days before building permits each new section was up a step or down two and wandered. The right angles were off a degree or six. The earnest money agreement from when my friend bought the place included the ghosts.

    I had to use that house in the 2nd Tess Noncoire book “Moon in the Mirror” by P.R. Frost, DAW Books 2007

  3. It helps enormously to have a floor plan of where your characters are living. Just so that you know whether they have to run upstairs or down, to throw themselves onto the bed and burst into tears, or whether you turn right or left to get to the front door.o