Photo by the amazing Emma Davies, talented photographer and photography teacher.
One of the most powerful ways to get to know the complexity of your characters is to think about the objects that surround them. What do they have in their pockets? Their handbags? The glovebox of their cars? What do they keep in their lofts, their garages, under their beds? What’s in those secret drawers that gather ticket stubs and bits of snapped jewellery and letters and pregnancy tests?
Why is this technique so powerful?
Revealing your characters through the objects in their lives forces you to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your readers about their unique natures.
Creating an inventory of your characters’ objects reveals:
- Their obsessions
- Their passions
- Their desires
- Their habits
- Their attachment or lack of attachment to the material world
- Their secrets (this is gold dust for writers)
- Their relationships
- Their past lives as well as their present existence – and how the two relate
Building objects around your characters also makes them real It makes your characters real and grounded in an everyday world readers recognise. More widely, it roots your novel in a specific time and place and specificity is vital to good storytelling.
Objects also allow you to build symbols and motifs that will point to important themes in your characters’ lives.
A wonderful friend of mine, Debbie Percy, is life coach who specialises in the art of handbag therapy! Here is what she says about women’s relationship to their bags and what lies inside:
For years I have been fascinated by the relationship women have with their handbags. Why is the handbag off-limits to our husbands and children? Why do we carry the ‘kitchen sink’ around inside them? And can we really leave home without them?
Do check out Debbie’s website, the works she does is fascinating.
I’ve recently read Minaret by Leila Aboulela for The BBC World Book Club and there’s a wonderful passage where Najwa, the protagonist, reflects on her old life in the Sundan (she is now in London and both her parents have died), through the lens of the objects left behind. This provides a wonderful insight into her old life (rich, privileged, liberal) versus her new life (she now works as a maid, has no savings, and, as a fundamentalist Muslim, has little attachment to material things). The passage shows how she has evolved as a character. You can read the passage below as part of the workshop.
I’ve used this technique in many of my novels. In What Milo Saw, Milo reflects on all the things that his great gran is going to have to leave behind when she goes to a nursing home. The objects tell us a great deal about Gran’s past life and how well Jonah knows her. In Before I Was Yours, my third novel for adults, coming out in 2017, seven-year-old Jonah who has been abandoned at Heathrow, carries around a special yellow backpack full of memories from his life back home. Again, read both passages as part of the workshop, thinking carefully about how objects reveal character.
- Read the three passages and reflect carefully on how objects are used to reveal character and also plot.
- Choose a character to work on, either one that you’ve created already or a new character. If you are creating a character from scratch, pick a name, age and maybe a job or occupation and then just see where this workshop takes you.
- Choose a container for your character’s objects: a pocket, a handbag (manage), a shopping trolley, the boot of a car, a glove box, a suitcase, a room, a desk, a wardrobe, a drawer – or any other ‘holder of objects’ you can think of.
- List 10 objects belonging to your character associated with the container chosen above. Be as specific and concrete as possible – these objects are personal to your character, the exact same object would look very different in another character’s handbag. You won’t end up writing about all these objects but knowing them all will make you write more confidently about your character.
- Now write a short passage, like one of the ones below, describing your characters’ objects in such a way that it reveals something about their character, their past, their present, their relationships, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations.
- Look over the passage you have written and think about all the different things this reveals about your characters.
- Do this same exercise with a different character.
- Repeat this exercise at a different point in your story and see whether the objects have changed and whether that suggests character development.
- Who is your character’s antagonist? Do this exercise for them and show how their objects reveal the conflict between the two characters.
Passage 1: Minaret, Leila Aboulela, P177
I remembered things I had left behind in Khartoum: a pair of beige sandals, a poster of Boney M, my schoolbag and photos. Where are these things now – in whose hands had they fallen? Our house was looted. It was looted for television sets, the video recorders, the silver, the freezers, cars, hi-fi system and cameras. Even the air conditioners were stripped from the walls, the fans unhooked from the ceilings…the letter opener made of ivory; my mother’s china and crystal glasses – did they smash in the chaos or were they delicately taken away? I would never know. I should forget, let go. Yet I could still feel a tattered Enid Blyton Book in my hand, smell the chlorine clinging to my swimsuit, a copy of Cosmopolitan borrowed from Rand and never returned.
Passage 2: What Milo Saw, P4
Mum jabbed a chipped pink nail at the computer screen. ‘Those rooms are far too big,’ she said. ‘Gran will feel lost.
So Milo did a search for nursing homes with small rooms. But then he thought about all the stuff Gran had upstairs, like Great-Gramps’s bagpipes and his uniform and the boxes of letters he’d written her and her map of Inverary and the picture of her fishing boat and her small radio and how she’d want to take it all with her.
Passage 3: Before I Was Yours, P82
He sits on the loo, waits a bit and then he flushes it several times to make it sound like he’s going. As he does, he quickly zips open his backpack. He pulls out the pinky-white shell from the beach on Lamu, puts it to his ear and listens for the sea, but all he can hear is the flushing of the loo.
Then Jonah takes out the other things from his backpack: Mama’s red pocket Bible with a page folded over by the story of his name and the special book that Mister Sir gave him about a magician who lives on an island with his daughter.
Jonah flushes the loo again, and pulls out a photograph of Mama in a yellow dress. She’s standing on the edge of the water: the sun’s bouncing off her black hair and she’s smiling and her face still looks soft because the photo is from before she got so thin. He takes off one of his shoes, folds the photo and places it under the insole. If they’re going to take his bag away from him, at least they won’t find Mama’s photo.
Then Jonah zips closed the backpack.