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The Tyranny of Things

What does an avalanche of stuff reveal about your characters?  What does that cluttered garage say about you?
The other day my husband and I spent hours shuffling shelves of saved paper, 3rd grade ceramic projects (handmade by me), and boxes of rocks (collected by my brother) on behalf of my  87 year old mother who had spontaneously decided to finally clean the  plant room (or as we call it, storage facility number 5).  After a hour of consideration, thought and negotiation, we were able to transport to the garbage can:  three pieces of packing foam, two bottle caps, and one champagne cork.
Even though she was born in 1935, my mother isn’t emotionally a child of the depression, she does, however, resist change, worry about legacy and on a good day, is wracked with indecision.
So can your fictional characters.  Physical things can help flesh out  a character and act as a symbol for their development and/or character arch.
You can use things in a number of ways;
Symbolic: the ring, the blanket, the phone.
Practical:  the bow and arrow, the gun, the key.
Emotional: the wedding ring, the candle, the gift
Possibility: the paint set, the instrument, the blank notebook
Foreshadowing:  the favorite flashlight, the radio, a magic book
For writers, stuff can represent  our character’s personality and motivation. In Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway, a character clutches  his back pack from the beginning to the end, never allowing it to leave his side. The pack is  filled with both precious and trivial items that appear throughout to illustrate the narrative, and is a critical contribution to the  climax.
In the film Hot Pursuit with Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, Vergara cannot let go of a suitcase packed with a collection of irresponsible shoes.  During their whole adventure that  suitcase drives the sensible character, played by Witherspoon, to distraction.
Of course, in the final scene, the shoes turn out to be far more than just a symbol of hyperbole and vanity.
Things demand decisions. Pack it? Donate it? Store it? Gift it?   When it comes to things, some decisions cannot be reversed. If your character suffers  from crippling indecision, a setting with piles of stuff that the character promises will be recycled, yet cannot do it, says a great deal.  (The comment, someday this will all be yours is less a promise than a terrifying threat.)  Piles of stuff visually indicates a character prone to procrastination.
Is your character trapped or blocked by his or her things?  Recall the tales of misers or rulers who hoard their things and their money but come to a bad end anyway.  Or the character who cannot leave her things for fear that her precious collections will be stolen, and in the end she loses what is more precious than the saved collection.
And of course as the  great symbol of freedom, a character setting off  on an adventure carrying little  more than a  map and a ring.  Or in the modern mythology, a character able to board a plane carrying only a passport and credit card.
Watch for stuff this season.  Watch airline passengers stand in forever lines at the check in gate literally surrounded by their baggage.  Observe shoppers loaded with so many packages they don’t fit into the car (both the stuff and the shopper).  Without being too obvious, count the disparate items in the closest Costco shopping cart, those items alone can tell quite a story.
What is your character’s story?  What is yours?


Catharine Bramkamp is a successful writing coach and author. She has published over 300 newspaper and magazine articles in publications like Modern Maturity (AARP), SF Chronicle and Santa Rosa Magazine. She was a contributor to two Chicken Soup Books and has published anthologies of her work, non-fiction works and novels. Her work has also appeared in a number of poetry and fiction anthologies. She has experimented with the self-publishing world since 2001. She has published and self-published seven books through companies like Author House, author assist companies like 3L Publishing and through traditional publishers like Write Life. Her poetry collection, Ammonia Sunrise, will be released in August 2011 by Finishing Line Press and her mystery novel, In Good Faith will be released by Write Life in 2011. Catharine holds a BA in English from UCSB and a MA in English from Sonoma State University. She is a 25 year member of California Writer’s Club. She is an adjunct professor for the University of Phoenix. She works with authors of both fiction and non-fiction to make their dream of producing a book come true. For more information on that, visit her at Catharine has lived in Sonoma County for 25 years and considers wine a food group. She is married to an adorable and very patient man who complains he’s never featured in any of her books. Her grown children who are featured in a few of her books have fled the county.

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