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?