Developing Your Characters: What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

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Developing characters in your writingA writing teacher (and multi-published novelist) once told me that to really understand a character you’re writing, you should make a list of the items they carry in their pockets.

While I hate to disagree with such an august mentor, I’m afraid that I simply have to.

You see, if you take a peek in my pockets at this very moment – an undertaking from which I heartily dissuade you – you will find a handkerchief, some small change and a couple of buttons which popped off my coat. A character who uses money, occasionally blows his nose and shivers a lot does not a compelling story make.

This may be different for the fairer sex. I have never plucked up the courage to venture into the deepest recesses of a lady’s handbag, so am not intimately acquainted with the traditional contents of such. However, I suspect them to be of an equally utilitarian nature; I would hazard a guess at purse, travelcard, keys, phone and a little spare make-up.

Show me the woman who carries a blunderbuss, a taxidermied stoat and an assortment of kazoos in her bag and I’ll show you a story!

A Room With Views
In short, the whole pocket exercise doesn’t really work for me. No. Far more telling and illustrative are the items which characters have dotted around their living room. In a supposedly private space, we reveal far more of our true natures and past lives than we could ever fit in a pocket.

It doesn’t matter one iota if the reader never sees your character’s living room. Neither does it matter whether the room in question is a functional cabin on board a deep-space cruiser, a sumptuous stateroom atop a dragon-beleaguered castle, or the humble bedsit of a struggling writer and part-time drunk. Very few of us have absolutely nothing of any significance in our living-spaces. Hell, even if we don’t, that in itself tells you a whole shedload about us.

Write your character’s living space regardless of whether it ever appears in your story. Inspect what’s on the shelves: the books, CDs and pictures obviously. But more importantly, the minutiae: the guitar picks, the Russian dolls, the dog-eared postcard (from who and from where?), the fading polaroid image of a younger life, the discarded bookmark from the British Museum… All of these things tell you something about the character, each of them has its own story and adds that back-story to your character’s psyche, to their motivations, to their hopes and dreams and fears.

Hello, Who Aren’t You?
By seeing what’s in their room, you’ll learn just as much about who your character isn’t as who they are. Take my very own real-life living room for example. A dusty guitar shows you that I once believed a life in music beckoned, only never had the talent or impetus to persevere and life took a different turn, hence the dust. From the books on learning to ski and water-ski you can infer that spending my free time sliding over the surface of the earth strapped to a plank turned out not to be the carefree joy I foolishly thought it might. There are two people that I never became right there and each of those non-people adds to the one I now am.

Take stock also of the things your character doesn’t have in their room. What’s missing that makes them stand out from the crowd, sets them apart from the norm? Or maybe it’s anything of particular interest which is missing, leaving them as dull and lifeless as a January morning.

The Room Maketh The Man (Or Woman, Or Child, Or Alien Entity)
A pocket is a very small and empty space in which to find the hooks that will transform your characters from words on a page into vibrant beings who will live on in the minds of readers long after they finish the final chapter. Next time you find a character isn’t living and breathing for you, try this exercise:

  • Take 15 minutes;
  • Write out a list of items which you think that character would have around their living space. It doesn’t need to be an exhaustive inventory, 10 or 15 pieces will do nicely.
  • Now sketch a line of backstory about where and how and why each of those became so important to their owner that they still retain a place within daily view. Just a line, no more.
  • At the end of 15 minutes, read through what you have and feel how much more intimately you know this person.

Now take the sketch and pin it up prominently somewhere around your writing space to refer back to whenever that character begins to flag.

Or you could always keep it in your pocket.

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23 thoughts on “Developing Your Characters: What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

  1. I was once on a writing course where we had to do the pocket exercise. I’m with you. It’s very limited. I turned it around a bit and added something very unusual and a little disturbing to the male character’s pocket…a well- used lipstick. That made it more fun!
    The room tells us so much more, doesn’t it. I like it.
    Great post. Liked your punch line 🙂
    Christine
    cicampbellblog.wordpress.com

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  2. Fantastic post…plan on sharing it.

    But I think what someone has in their pockets could turn into a wonderful plot. The woman who has ten cents to her name gives it to the Salvation Army bucket, to be seen by someone else who turns her life around. The guy with buttons in his pocket touts them as the best thing ever and becomes a CEO (yeah, I’m a dreamer).

    I have a series of spy books under and different pen name where the main protagonist (a woman with attitude) says she needs duct tape and a gun in her purse.

    So, you see, sometimes what’s in a pocket can also make a great story.

    Although I DO like the room stuff, as well. It can show a life well lived, or not lived at all.

    Thanks for the post, too! GREAT IDEAS!!!

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  3. FANTASTIC!!!!! ^_^ Brilliant points and well said! It’s true … as a writer I find myself being a super snoop when I visit other people’s houses, particularly if they are not a close friend and if I’ve never been to their house before. (And yes I will look in your medicine cabinet … nothing is safe!) Because you are so right, what people have and display (or hide, ahem…) in their houses say so much about them! Tis why I study every single little tiny thing about people’s living spaces while I’m there. 😉 Although I should have thought to do your suggested exercise a lot earlier in my own novel, since it wasn’t until I got to a scene which included Vince’s house that his trinkets were revealed to me, and you are so right, that scene was what cemented his real, inner self in my mind. (He’s a very private person anyway, even *I* had a hard time cracking him until that scene!) Pavel on the other hand, was a little easier, but he’s kind of an open book anyway, sooo. Great exercise though, love it! And will definitely be doing it for characters in the future!

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  4. PS, speaking of purses … I might frighten people with the contents of my purse. I tend to carry some self-defense items and I am careful to not accidentally pull them out when digging for something like a pen or whatnot. Lol. Although one of the self defense items is simply a flashlight … don’t let it deceive you … it can be a nasty little thing! Ah, see! That might be interesting for a plot …

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  5. Jon, I don’t think just going through the living room would be enough. I would say going through the junk drawer in the kitchen, the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and what’s in the bedroom also have to be applied. And the pocket or purse is helpful too.

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    • A very good point Glynis. The random ephemera of life scattered around the place all have their part to play. For me it’s just having the time to use them all to build into a single character; but a selection from each might well do the trick.

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