I've been eyeballs-deep in novel planning lately, and I've been focusing on all the things a writer does before they sit down to actually write. One of the workshops I sat in on at RWA a few weeks ago was 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 seen before:
List the contents of your character's purse.This has never worked for me since my characters don't usually have purses, and 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 I've learned that a subtle shift in how you consider something is often all it takes to turn a "not for me" tip into something that clicks and becomes incredibly helpful.
Then she took it a step further, and this is the part I really found helpful.
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 that 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.
(More on discovering who your characters are here)
How does this work?
List three to five things your character would carry or keep with them. (I'll wait)
Okay, now look at those things. How many of them could be found in any random person's possession? Get rid of those.
Now add back only items that also say something about your character that relates to the plot, conflict, or theme of the novel.
(More ways to create characters here)
Let's check in with Bob and the zombies for some examples.
Bob would stuff 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. No, 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.
All the other survival gear is something 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 but 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 wife seeing it.
From this one photo, you know 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). You'd know that Bob would go to great lengths to protect Jane, and maybe not so great lengths to protect his wife.
These details will have far more significance to you as the author than the reader, because you'll understand why they matter. But knowing that will give those items and seemingly random details so much more weight in the story, because they will actually mean something. 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 of 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?
(More on character archetypes here)
You might just discover something new.
What unexpected details have made you love a character?