Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When Inanimate Objects Become Characters

Some of my favorite characters in a story are the ones who can’t even talk. And no, I’m not talking about some kind of magical realism or fantasy (at least not in this case). I’m talking about the nonhuman elements of a story that add layers to characters, depth to the plot, or create powerful symbolism that gives the central themes a huge punch. 

You may not have realized or put words to this technique, but it can do great things for your story! So, let’s talk about a few examples of this in play:

Objects as Symbols. Think of the pants in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. The dress in Rachel Hauck’s The Wedding Dress. Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away. The One Ring to Rule Them All. Authors often use objects as a way to represent history, a common thread between characters, a goal or dream that pulls at the heart strings.

Off the top of my head, I can think of articles of clothing, family heirlooms, and other possessions that mean a lot to characters and their journeys on a deeper level. And if done correctly, readers become really invested in what happens to these objects.

Settings. The Island on LOST was a character in itself--and a villain at times. Big, creaky mansions can be full of secrets and irony. Sometimes even a particular landscape can be a character like a choppy, unpredictable ocean for a boat full of fishermen or a sky rumbling with tornadic activity above the people farming the plains.

Locations are a great way to add context to a story, spice up a plot with tension, and reveal important aspects about your central characters.

Animals. I include pets in this list because, while technically animate, they’re not human. They don’t talk unless you write fantasy. But they serve as confidantes to characters, calm them when things are rough, and can definitely smooth some rough edges.

In my second manuscript, my hero has a female black Lab who often tags along with him in the back of his truck. She brings out his tender side to the heroine, showing there’s more to underneath his polished, professional exterior.

Rides. Fonz and his hot rod. Han Solo and his Millenium Falcon. John Wayne and his noble steed. Marty McFly and the DeLorean. Some characters’ rides are just as much a part of them as their own hands and feet. They pamper their rides, they commiserate about them, they know just what combination of kicks and maneuvers will get their “bucket of bolts” back in working order. A person’s ride can definitely add dimension to their characterization.

Fun fact: I got the idea for this whole post when my beloved Nissan Xterra died on me after 13 wonderful years and I realized how deeply this car was associated with some of my favorite memories. Never mind that I named her and considered her a sidekick; if my life were a movie, that car would have had her own billing :)

Objects as Trademarks. Along the same lines, a character can be associated with a particular object to reveal a lot about them. Or simply to create some kind of effect (often comedic). Pigpen of Peanuts fame wouldn’t be the same without his signature cloud of dust. Nor would Alfalfa without his rogue cowlick. Maybe your heroine can’t survive without a cup of coffee in her hand. {Oh wait, that’s my critique partner, Jaime, in real life :)}


As I said above, I think an object truly becomes a character in a story when readers develop a sympathy for it, when they care about what happens to it, when they wonder if it’s going to pop up in the following chapter, or what kind of trouble it will get our hero/heroine into next.

Think about how this technique can amplify your current work-in-progress. Does your hero/heroine have a trademark object? What are some of your favorite inanimate object characters in the fiction you love?

Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom who writes stories of grace in the beautiful mess. When she's not writing, she enjoys car singing, baking, and going on adventures with her husband and little girl. 

Her first book won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award (Contemporary), and her second is a current finalist in the 2014 Genesis Contest (Romance). She is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie at www.laurietomlinson.com or Facebook.com/AuthorLaurieTomlinson.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Great post, Laurie! I hadn't thought about rides as having a personality, but you are right! I gotta know...what was the name of your car?

Sarah Forgrave said...

Great post! I love thinking of creative ways to use this effect, and you've sparked some new ideas. :)

I think inanimate objects can serve as a useful tool for representing the character's internal change too. Maybe a selfish character holds tightly to a favorite pair of shoes, but by the end of the story, gives them to a homeless person on the streets. Ohhh, or what about Anne's beat-up carpetbag in Anne of Green Gables? And by the end, she's wearing Marilla's hand-sewn dresses.

Okay, I'll stop now. (Can you tell I love this topic?) :)

Anonymous said...

This is great! :) In my WIP, my main character loves roses and cultivates them in and around her home before the Civil War comes knocking and displaces her and her family.

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Sherrinda - It was Xi-Xi ("Z.Z.") the Xterra :) When I announced her departure on Facebook, I had so many friends post "condolences" and memories. It was nice :)

@Sarah - Glad to find someone else excited about this topic! You're absolutely right about internal change. Love all of those examples!

@Meghan - I can see how you could do lots of creative things with that. Those roses will always represent home to her!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Laurie! I've seen houses used as a character—especially when one is being restored. Such beautiful symbolism can come from that as a character grows through his/her journey.

I love Anne Shirley's carpet bag too (as Sarah mentioned).

My character wears a bracelet her husband gave to her before he died. She twists it when nervous or upset, she has memories represented by the charms on it (that he gave her). At the end of this story, maybe I'll have her take it off as a symbol she's ready to move on in a relationship with the hero.....hmmm, hadn't thought about that. :)

Raquel Byrnes said...

Great post! Stephen King's Christine scared me to death.
Edge of Your Seat Stories

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Jeanne - Love that idea! I believe you just had an ah-HA moment :)

@Raquel - I'm a sissy when it comes to Stephen King's stories. I'll read with one hand covering my eyes, thank you very much! :)

Anonymous said...

@ Laurie: That is exactly it! Hence my novel's title, Amongst the Roses. :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Love this! I'm a big time car girl! Always name mine too ;) but I digitally use them as characters in stories. In my first book Beauty for Ashes the heroine drives a Jeep wrangler for everyday but when she gets nostalgic or struggles with her ghosts, she takes her best friend Ryan's 1969 z28 Camaro out for a cruise, rolls the windows down and cranks up the oldies. I've also been know to use weather changes as symbolism in story. The setting becomes the character and the weather the temperament :) great stuff!

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Amy - You're so clever :) I will have to watch for this!