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October 10, 2011

Exploring character through valued possessions

Photo by Timitrius

Imagine you have to pack up your home and can only take with you those things that fit in the trunk of your car.  Bringing family members along?  Then you have to share the trunk space with them.  What do you take?  What do you do with those things you leave behind?  Who decides?

For a while now I've been considering those questions, and I have about a year to come up with the answers.  The flowers transplanted from my grandparents' house, the china hutch Grandpa built, the desk I bought during grad school, shelves and shelves of books--those things simply won't fit.  The spices in the kitchen cupboard?  Those, I ought to bring.  Everything I have must prove its worth.  Necessity is winning out over sentiment.  And, I'm surprised.  I've always had trouble letting go of items to which memories are attached--even gifts I don't especially like, I cherish because I love the giver.

This has me thinking about the impact of objects in my fiction.  Most often my characters' prize possessions are valued, not for their usefulness, but for their emotional weight.  Nothing wrong with that.  But utilitarian objects--a hammer, for instance, or a bow--could be even more important to a character.

With that in mind, consider a character from your work and make a list of the five objects most important to him or her.  Now, delve into each object.  Describe it in depth.  How would the character describe it?  How would the character explain the object's worth?  Is there a story attached to the object?  Does it have a history?  Where and how is it kept and cared for?  What sort of condition is it in?  And so on.

At the exercise's end, you will likely have greater insight about the character.  You might also have some fresh ideas for the plot or even for an additional story.  Let me know how the exercise works out for you!

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