Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

An Empty Room

By 
Melissa S. Born  
2003, Melissa S. Born  

ike many writers in college, I enrolled in a creative writing class to improve my skill and get an "easy A."  However, this class became a challenge from the moment I walked through the door.  The teacher, a young poet with a Masters in poetry, walked in with a phone book clutched in her hands.  Just a phone book.  She set it down on her desk, opened it and began tearing pages from it as the last of the students filed into class.

After everyone was seated, several pages filled with a cascade of names and numbers were given to each of us. "Take out a blank sheet of paper and a pen.  This is called character building through setting." She smiled, "A somewhat roundabout way of doing it.  Pick a first name and a last name from the pages I've given you and fill your page with information about that person."

Okay.  Character creation.  I can handle this.  So I picked a name, trying to make him as interesting as possible -- I had several Smith pages after all -- and began jotting down little things about my character.  I wrote down his hair color, his eye color, height, weight, age, education, everything I could think of, and before I knew it my page was full and the teacher was telling us to put down our pens.

She then told us to get out another blank sheet of paper and said that this was where we build our characters.  We had to write a page length description of the room in which our characters lived. Where the person lives would tell us much about her life.  She smiled somewhat deviously this time when she told us that our character couldn't be present in the room.

What?  A story with no characters?

I stared at my blank page, then back at the page I had filled full of information about the character.  All that information I had written down told me little about who he really was and what sort of room he had.  Would he be cleanly?  A slob?  A teenager up on all the latest technology?  Or a wizard who blew up electronic devices just by walking by them? 

The teacher dismissed class and I drove home thinking about my character.  It wasn't until I walked into my own bedroom that I realized I could do it.  CDs covered my stereo stand, posters on the wall, computer blaring with a white screen; these things reflected my personality.  I had a character.  He was young, lonely, living in poverty.  His world danced with wonderful creatures like faeries, elves and dragons.  So his world wasn't so great.  He spent most of his days locked away in a tower, carving pictures in the stone walls.  But wait...

Pictures on the walls.  Perhaps my character hoped to someday be free and the pictures were drawings of the time he would be?  Maybe a simple leather blanket would be enough to make him happy as it warded off the evening chill.  And from the single small window he could look out and watch the faeries play outside in the sunlight and smile, knowing someday he'd join them.

So I began to write.  I knew my character now like no one else, all because I knew where he lived and how he lived in the same way that I know where I live and how I live.  The room reflected the story of his life, his goals, and his dreams.  Short and to the point, one page about an empty room taught me more than a thousand pages of character description ever could.  And guess what?  I got an A on that one.

-Credit to Professor Cullen Bailey Burns

Example Piece:

The Room by Melissa S Born

Damp, dirty, blue-gray bricks held the cold inside the room as if it were collecting it.  A single dancing light, projected from the last dying candle, flickered across the walls, moving to an unseen rhythm.  The lone window, high on the outside wall, allowed only one tiny gleam of moonlight in to pronounce the time of day.  Scratches in the stone and rusty chains hung with eerie decoration as a reminder of the past.  Thick white spider webs flowed across the room, shimmering in the candle light, and a lone live victim struggled against the intricate design that swung gently in the wind.  Wrapped tightly in silk threads its will faded as the owner of the beautiful, but deadly, creation approached carrying hunger in its many eyes.  Rats squealed and padded across the hard floor, their nails scraping the ground as they scattered away from the crystal webs as if in fear they would be caught too.

A tray of bread and water sat untouched beside the thick rotted wood door.  A rough, worn leather mat, still warm, with a balled-up blanket thrown carelessly on top, as if forgotten, sprawled out beneath the window.  Beside the make-shift bed a broken chunk of brick left a chalky residue, that formed drawings of a small stick-figure wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by tiny stick forms with wings, in the thick dust on the floor.  The only indication of life, bare footprints, those small enough to be from a child, imprinted in the dirt next to the mat, glowed with tiny sparkles that lead to the window and disappeared into the night.