A long time ago, I bought my first car, a battered old Nissan Cherry. I loved it, unreliable though it was. In order to celebrate liberation from the tyranny of bus timetables, my friend and I decided to go on a day trip to Rockingham Castle, about an hour’s drive away. It was an extremely hot summer’s day and, in the way of ancient cars everywhere, my new chariot broke down. We sat on the grassy verge, waiting for steam to stop bellowing from under the bonnet, and sweltering in the heat.
My friend, who was a redhead, and thus especially vulnerable to sunburn, turned to me and sighed: ‘What we really need is some suntan lotion.’
I pulled three bottles out of my handbag. ‘Do you want Factor 8, 15 or 30?’
By now you will have guessed that I am the sort of person who likes to prepare for every eventuality. I always have paracetamol in my handbag. I can always be relied upon to be possessed of optical wipes for cleaning mucky spectacles, spare tissues, chocolate of course, and even echinacea lozenges just in case someone has a sore throat. This is not because I have children – any mother will tell you that it is necessary to have a handbag full of bandaids, crayons and baby wipes. It is because I am the sort of person that worries.
I know a man who always carries a length of string in his pocket. He is a very practical person, and he tells me how useful a spare bit of string can be in unexpected situations. This always seems a surprise to me, since he travels around the world, fixing nuclear power stations for a living. Quite apart from the fact that I don’t want to imagine the kind of nuclear power station scenario in which a length of gardeners twine might save the day, I always feel he is the sort of person whom you could reasonably expect to be in possession of a sonic screwdriver. For real. The string therefore says a lot about his practical, if eccentric, character.
The things we carry with us say so much about who we are. Ask a group of female friends to open their handbags and you will find the ones who carry about four different shades of lipstick, a packet of cuppa soup, or a spare bag to pick up dog poop. Just look at the handbags, too. There are those who insist on the vast sacks that are so fashionable these days, the ones who like bags with lots of pockets to organise things (and the ones with pocket bags who can never find anything inside the vast number of pockets), and the austerely practical ones who favour a tiny, cross-body pouch barely big enough to hold a purse, phone and keys.
Mens’ pocket contents are just as informative. My husband’s pockets are always full of folded pieces of copier paper, on the outside of which he has made cryptic notes in his other-worldly, hieroglyphic handwriting. He sheds them at the end of the day, leaving piles of folds on the dining room table. I bought him a notebook once, but he rarely used it. His paper folds reflect his scattered mode of thinking, and the fact that he is always thinking about something, even in the midst of something else.
Character could also undoubtedly be read in manbags, laptop bags, briefcases, breast pockets and poachers pockets in coats and suit jackets. Each is a map to an individual’s mind, habits, and priorities as unique as its owner.
This exercise is probably as old as the hills, and I have no idea who originally came up with it, but it always strikes gold for me when I am writing a new character.
Take out your notebook, and start a fresh page (of course). Give yourself a few minutes to imagine the character you want to work with. Picture them in your mind in as much detail as you can. Clothes, smell, tone of voice and stance. Now get them to empty out their pockets – or their handbag (or equivalent).
What items are so essential to them that they always have to carry them around?
Do they keep sentimental items on them, perhaps a pendant that belonged to an old lover, an outdated student ID card, a rosary or St Christopher.
My father always carried a crisply ironed gentlemens handkerchief of pure white cotton, fresh every day. Is your character the kind that carries tissues, a handkerchief, or wipes their nose on their cuff?
This is a little like a writer’s version of Kim’s Game, except that each article you choose, from the broken crumbs of a forgotten polo mint to the famous sonic screwdriver, says something important about your character. Why do they carry these things? Is it for practical, spiritual or even superstitious reasons? Are they carrying the past to motivate them in the present, or do they keep an array of useful bits close, just in case?
You could even expand this exercise to include car glove compartments and boots (trunks).
This exercise should give you a great start when you are working with a new character. You will find out so many things about them that you never would have imagined possible. Let them dance before your eyes, peeling off elements of themselves as if performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. It’s so exciting when a new person reveals themselves to you.
And remember, once you know who they are, you will know how they behave. And it is their behaviour that will make your plot.