Everyday Items That Reveal Character
Updated: Mar 19, 2018
I'm a big believer in the power of everyday objects. One of my blogs is dedicated to lost things. I even went to an entire museum once in Northern Vermont dedicated to "normal" objects: the Museum of Everyday Life.
If you want to never look at your toothbrush the same way again, I highly recommend it.
The objects we own say a lot about us. As a writer, and especially as a realistic fiction writer, I remind myself that these small items—toothbrushes, combs, rocks—can reveal character, or in the very least become a compelling metaphor. Wouldn't you want to read a story where a mug is used as a metaphor for death? How fresh of a concept is that, am I right? I once read a student piece like that. I published it in the lit mag I was working for instantly.
Just because we see or use an object to the point of it becoming background fodder doesn't mean it's unimportant. The more we use an object, the more stories it collects, and the more it says about the person who uses it. Here are a few items you can use when writing to show the reader who you character is without directly telling them.
Talk about an object that is always in use. Think of it this way: a character often can't get where they're going without their shoes. Not only do they go everywhere with you, collecting stories with your feet, but if you're writing a story, shoes can be a great visual to include. Are they caked in mud? Are the shoe laces frayed? Is there a hole in the sole?
If you're looking for meaning or metaphor in an everyday object, or a way to reveal the lifestyle of your character, shoes are a great place to start.
2. Cigarette buds
I personally don't smoke, and I don't encourage other people to smoke. Though when I look at a cigarette bud on the ground I can't help but wonder what lips last touched its paper. The lips someone uses to eat, to breathe, to kiss. One of the most diversely utilized body parts has to touch a cigarette in order to use it. The cigarette can have a story behind it, but more importantly, so does the mouth that used it.
A cigarette can be a great metaphor, and a great way to introduce a character starting from a micro visual, and moving to the macro of the character.
Yes, sheets, not the bed. The bod acts intimately with the sheets. Skin touches sheets, not the physical mattress (usually). Sheets can be a great character indicator. What color are they? What is that stain? Is someone in them? Who? How many different people sleep in these sheets? Is the bed made? Like shoes, sheets can provide necessary character or background information, and it can do it in a extremely visually compelling way.
I'm serious: the toothbrush. Manual vs electronic. Oral B vs a cheep plastic off-brand brush. Frayed bristles vs fresh bristles. Even whether or not the brush is made for "sensitive gums" can be a major tell for what character we're dealing with. I have a blue manual brush with extra-hard bristles. You can make so many assumptions about me based off of my toothbrush.
While it's a fun way to reveal character, it's also fresh (ha). Not everyone introduces a character using a toothbrush.
Again, this one is really just fun. As I always say, if you want to get to know someone, just open their fridge. You can tell a lot from the fact that my fridge always has applesauce, pickles, and two percent milk whereas my college roommate always had hot sauce, KFC leftovers, and Price Chopper brand spaghetti sauce. If you ever want to have just a fun way to describe a character, or a great lead into a scene, just have a character crack open the fridge.