Ideas for Adding Personality to Model Railroad Layouts

I’m digressing a bit for this installment. I’ve had many great experiences designing and building model railroads for over fifty years now and met rail modelers from many avocations. For me the most inspiring part of that experience has to be the emotional connection that develops while working and sharing creative ideas with fellow modelers.
So, for me, the human interaction component is a key element in “The World’s Greatest Hobby.” Applying that concept to our three-dimensional artwork of building our displays of model railroading is what I refer to as adding the Fourth Dimension. It’s the reward we receive for ourselves after hours of dedicated modeling work.

Focus on Storytelling

Thinking in these terms should be a precursor to scenery detail work. Model railroading can be storytelling as well as all its other attributes. In its own way, the enjoyment of our hobby can be akin to reading a novel or watching a good movie. Just maybe we’re building a movie set including actors, all in a miniature scale. Wow!
As a youngster, I had the great fortune of riding with real train crews and visiting their shops and yards. I asked questions and learned what their lives as railroaders were like. Relating back to those experiences, I believe that as we create our alternate realities, our layouts really need to address the human dimension that ostensibly created those scenarios in the first place. What if we lived in their world? What would our daily activities be like? Would you be the railroad’s president, or maybe the town’s mayor? How about a civil engineer or a town planner? Sound crazy? I’m hoping this blog will be a conversation-starter. Related video: Personalizing Your Model Railroad Layouts

Develop a Back Story

Think about it – we create the environment for our miniature workers. What are their jobs? Where do they go? Are there historical influences at these locations? Bottom line – does your layout have a “personality”?
A little about the historical aspect. I believe that to bring a scene alive there should be a “back story.” A developed story, real or imagined, can transfer a true believability to our projects. Scenic elements can be used to provide a visual history of passing time, such as an abandoned building, an old roadbed, or derelict rail equipment. Can you feel the creative juices flowing? Related video: Using Applied History to Duplicate a Prototype Railroad I’m very interested in your feelings about the “fourth dimension” of model railroading. If we develop enough interest, hopefully we could develop an ongoing discussion section on the theatrics of modeling at the Model Railroad Academy website.
More on designing and creating a model railroad layout next time! More in this series: So You Want to Build a Model Railroad Layout? Choosing Model Railroad Track Configurations Assigning a Theme for Your Model Railroad Layout Ideas for Unique Layout Concepts Tips on Trackwork Helpful Tips for Model Railroad Wiring Creative Ideas for Model Railroad Structures
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17 Responses to “Ideas for Adding Personality to Model Railroad Layouts”
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi, Joseph. No. Good thought though. Maybe we should start one. Thanks.

  1. Derick Santorella
    Derick Santorella

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  2. Wally

    I agee. I am a beginner but I have read in many places that (mini) scenes should tell stories. I find myself wanting more human figures to put around my structures. Without people, the stories our buildings tell are not as compelling.

    I also see echos in the advice for creating realistic operations: decide what you industries produce, what raw materials they need, what waste they will produce and in this way construct meaningful waybills. The consistency of the story makes the operation ‘come alive’.

  3. Jennifer

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  4. Joan and Charles Cleveland
    Joan and Charles Cleveland

    The comments on adding personality are quite interesting and appropriate for what I want to accomplish. My wife and I are planning to build a small 027 gauge layout to accompany my 1954 Lionel train plus additional accessories. Our layout will probably be no more that 6 x 12 and we want to include numerous landscape/housing/roads that reflect where we were raised. This will be a “developing” accomplishment and restricted by size and the 027 gauge. We are, however, looking forward to a good experience. Will keep you advised as time goes on.

    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Wow. Not that I’m aware of. I’d be very interested though. And, there is some great modeling going on down there.
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  5. J R
    J R

    Great Blog ! I would only add that building a model RR is a never-ending journey. On that journey, we discover the purpose of the RR which unveils exciting scenes along the way. Our layout transports goods and people to and from various towns through those exciting scenes. Sound effects & automations enhance the experience.

  6. rod

    i am wanting to build ho layout 32 by 8 over my office restroom and maint room and look down with mirrors and going around the inside of the building 8 feet up 60 by 90 o scale 2 tracks 800 and 50 of track can you give me some help on this thank you

    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi Rod. Well, that sounds like a big project. Do you have any specific questions?


    Details bring a model railroad to life. Just by adding items to a layout that are common place in real life brings realism to a layout. Old pallets, drums, litter, old ties, equipment parts, wheels and the list continues are items that should be included in model railroad scenes.


  8. H. LYALL
    H. LYALL

    Just read your ideas about “backstory”. One of my gripes about most layouts is the lack of houses for business and factory workers to live in. I think that housing is a good part of the backstory. You need a couple of really big houses for the local owners of a factory or business, then you need a nice set of middle size houses for middle class peoples like professionals, and last you need a good row of small houses, close together for the factory workers. I have tried to include this in my 8′ by 5′ 3″ table layout. It doesn’t leave as much room for track, but it makes a nice village. I still have to add the other scenery, but I think the buildings are about complete.

  9. Geoffrey Wardill
    Geoffrey Wardill



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