Monday, November 28, 2022

A Quick Tip for Getting to Know Your Characters--And Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A single item can tell readers a lot about who your character is.

Several years ago I sat in on an RWA workshop on character building, led by romance author Susan Elizabeth Philips. I've attended her workshops before and she's always been entertaining and informative.

She gave a tip (and did an exercise) that I've tried before:
List the contents of your character's purse.
This has never worked for me since my fantasy characters don't usually have purses, but she added the phrase "or their backpack or pockets" to it. That broadened it some, and I realized that ultimately, what she was saying was:

What does your character feel is important enough to carry around with them? 

It's a slightly different way of looking at this character-building tip, but a subtle shift in how we consider something is often all it takes to turn a "not for me" tip into something that clicks and becomes incredibly helpful.

Then Phillips took it a step further, and this is the part I really found useful.

What items give a sense of the plot? 

Any item could be in a purse, pocket, or bag. People carry useless stuff all the time, and they carry stuff that could be found in anyone's bag. But if you think about what's unique to your character, and how that item gives a sense of the plot, conflict, or even theme, then you've discovered something about your character you probably didn't know before.

(Here's more with Who is That Guy? Discovering Your Characters)

Building off Phillip's tip, let's try this:

List three to five items your character would carry or keep with them.

Don't just toss off items willy nilly. Think about what this character would carry.

Now look at those items. How many of them could be found in any random person's possession? Get rid of those.

Add back only items that also say something about your character that relates to the plot, conflict, or theme of the novel.

(Here's more with Under Development: Ways to Create Characters)

Let's check in with Bob and the zombies for some examples.

Bob would posses items that someone in the middle of a zombie apocalypse would own. Ammo, a weapon, survival gear, etc. But he'd also have a photo of Jane, the woman he's secretly in love with. Or better yet--make it a candid photo of her, signifying that he took it without her knowledge and that his love is unrequited or unprofessed.

See the difference?

The survival gear is what every character in this zombie book would carry. It tells us a little about the type of book, sure, but it gives us nothing about who Bob is or what his story is. But that candid photo? That says more. That suggests a larger story at work that's personal to Bob, and makes him more interesting.

Why does he have a photo of a woman who's not his wife?

Not only does this add an element of intrigue to the character, it also suggests something about the plot by pointing out what matters to Bob. Jane is important enough to him to A) snap a candid photo of her, B) have it with him even when the world is ending, C) risk his heavily-armed wife seeing it.

From this one photo, we can guess that Bob is unhappy in his marriage, he wants another woman, and that she probably doesn't know it (the wife or the love interest, really). We' might even suspect that during a zombie attack, Bob might go to great lengths to protect Jane, and maybe not so great lengths to protect his wife.

What a character keeps close to them matters to them. 

These details will have far more significance to you as the author than the reader, because you'll understand why they matter. The reader will eventually see that as the story and characters develop.

Little details often make the difference between good and awesome. It's the extra thought that pulls the greatness from a character and fleshes them out for a reader.

Even if you don't typically like the purse exercise, try it again with this new aspect in mind. Consider what items would say more about your character than the stereotypical elements of your genre and character archetype. What items say who they are when no one's watching?

You might just discover something new.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and do this exercise. Consider why the character has this item and what it says about them and the story.    

What unexpected details have made you love a character? 

*Originally published August 2013. Last updated November 2022.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. BBC's Sherlock did a great job with John Watson. In the opening episode, he's a PTSD vet living on his own, in a Spartan room with a gun in a drawer. Keep in mind the Brits are fairly anti-gun and Watson is a doctor.

  2. Great tip, Janice, especially with the example of the picture in the pocket. I've heard of doing this before, but never tried it.

  3. The purse idea wouldn't work for me. My characters start out as blank slates, and I flesh them out as I move through the story, adding whatever traits I need to strengthen the plot. You might be surprised how well this works, at least for me.

    I do like the idea of imagining what possessions he cares about most, though, especially when I'm far enough through the story to get a sense of where he's at. I think I'll try that trick in my next story. Thanks, Janice.

  4. Ooh, I love Sherlock! (Whistles innocently and pretends to have nothing to do with fangirl squee.)

    Your switch from `what the character has' to `what's important to the character' really makes this click. Now I want to try the exercise. I have a character who carries a lot of random stuff, but I never bothered to look past the obvious. (Rope for climbing, playing cards for springing locks, a Jacob's Ladder just because I needed him to pull something out of his pocket and there it was.)

    I love your Bob and the Zombies example. It really clarifies what you're saying.

  5. That's an excellent tip, and thank you so much for this post!

    I had certainly read about purse-inventory (or, as in my MC's case, backpack-inventory) as a form of fleshing out characterization, but for some reason I hadn't made the connection of using it as a plot-enhancing device. It makes so much sense.

  6. Rachel, great show. And a great example.

    Natalie, I never had until this workshop, and I figured out something really cool for a book I'm working out. I'm going to try it more often now.

    Chemist Ken, that's actually my process as well, but this exercise actually helped me discover something I love for a new book. I wouldn't have figured it out had I not done this exercise.

  7. Like everyone else who has commented I have come across the purse (in UK English the handbag) exercise before as part of character creation, but these crucial extras embed the character into the plot - simple and brilliant! Like your example too - it's a good model as is the opening scene from Sherlock. Generally speaking, no one in UK carries a gun unless you're a criminal or it's essential for work such as a farmer (pest control). I don't think even gun club members would keep their guns at John Watson having a gun is very significant. And on that subject Sherlock is just about the start a news season. Be still my beating heart...!

  8. Janice, thanks for helping us wrap our minds around this tool!

    Years ago, I read about this exercise (forget where) but it didn't click for me (could have something to do with the fact that I don't carry a purse :-/ ). I have actually done this without realizing it in my current wip. My character is a runaway so she travel lite but when she left home she did take several items which play a part in the story like the military coin given to her at her father's funeral from his unit. She also has empty chocolate covered coffee bean wrappers in her backpack that play into the plot. One other thing that occurred to me is that the fact that her backpack has the empty wrappers and her tote that holds her art supplies is neat, tidy, and meticulously arranged is also telling.

    I think I'll try this for my MMC to see if I get any insight. ;-)

  9. I've heard the purse idea, but I've never heard the "throw the rest out" part. That's brilliant!

  10. Janice, so much just snapped into place for me -- I can't wait to get cracking on my novel again now that I understand my protagonist a little bit more! Thanks!!

  11. Bridgetwhelan, I just loved that little extra thought. It really gave the exercise direction. I can't wait for the new Sherlock myself.

    Lynn, very cool. I'm intrigued by the wrappers now. Love the coin detail as well.

    Julie, thanks, that was my addition :) Kind if like cutting through the superfluous details to find the bits the matter.

    Sarah, oh cool! I love when that happens. Good luck with the tweaks!

  12. Another great post Janice. I saw a short doc once about the things people keep in their pockets. It was very moving. I love this approach about finding what matters to the plot. I can't wait to empty out my character's bookbag!

    Here's another idea that may be helpful to folks: Because my character is a teen, I've decided to search through her cell phone as well. I'm sure I can find a load of stuff in there. Happy writing!

  13. Marti, great idea! I love that. It opens a lot of doors for the different places characters can store things.

  14. Like some above, details about my characters comes to me as the story develops. One of them, a single mother went to a casual meeting with a large wicker bag. When the meeting was done, she had difficulty finding her keys. While the guys waited, she pulled out the usual items. Then things got strange: a 5-inch tube with an umbrella in it, rings & rings of color-coded keys, a swollen coin purse, a silk dress that folded into one of its pockets, a slender belt to go with it (she explained those things are need "in a pinch"), a confiscated game from one of her kids, a music CD. She said with last minute plan changes, she only needs that dress, her phone, the coin purse and her keys & she's good to go. When she found her keys somewhere at the bottom of the bag, she claimed maybe she should add pockets for more space. I'm not that efficient, but maybe it's because I'm 30 years older than her.

    1. Love it. I can see how you'd spend the whole book discovering things she keeps in her purse :)

  15. Love this! I do all kinds of pre-writing character exercises, including Michael Hague's worksheets, but I've never tried this one. Excited to put it to use with my WIP. :)

  16. What a great idea. I can't wait to try this.

    1. Hope it works for you! I found it a lot of fun to do.

  17. I read this article and got a handbag advert at the bottom! Ha! Now at least I know what the outside of my character's handbag should look like...

  18. Thank you so much for sharing these tips. I learned a lot!

    1. You're most welcome :) Glad they were useful