Your Characters:  What's  in Their Pockets?

Your Characters: What's in Their Pockets?

Blogprofilepicture_zps1dda66aaA writing teacher (and multi-published novelist) once told me that to really understand a character you’re writing, you should make a list of the items he carries carry in his pockets.

While I hate to disagree with such an august mentor, I’m afraid that I simply have to.

You see, if you take a peek in my pockets at this very moment – an undertaking from which I heartily dissuade you – you will find a handkerchief, some small change and a couple of buttons which popped off my coat. A character who uses money, occasionally blows his nose and shivers a lot does not a compelling story make.

This may be different for the fairer sex. I have never plucked up the courage to venture into the deepest recesses of a lady’s handbag, so am not intimately acquainted with the traditional contents of such. However, I suspect them to be of an equally utilitarian nature; I would hazard a guess at purse, travelcard, keys, phone and a little spare make-up.

Show me the woman who carries a blunderbuss, a taxidermied stoat and an assortment of kazoos in her bag and I’ll show you a story!

A Room With Views
In short, the whole pocket exercise doesn’t really work for me. No. Far more telling and illustrative are the items which characters have dotted around their living rooms. In a supposedly private space, we reveal far more of our true natures and past lives than we could ever fit in a pocket.

It doesn’t matter one iota if the reader never sees your character’s living room. Neither does it matter whether the room in question is a functional cabin on board a deep-space cruiser, a sumptuous stateroom atop a dragon-beleaguered castle, or the humble bedsit of a struggling writer and part-time drunk. Very few of us have absolutely nothing of any significance in our living-spaces. Hell, even if we don’t, that in itself tells you a whole shedload about us.

Write your character’s living space regardless of whether it ever appears in your story. Inspect what’s on the shelves: the books, CDs and pictures obviously. But more importantly, the minutiae: the guitar picks, the Russian dolls, the dog-eared postcard (from who and from where?), the fading polaroid image of a younger life, the discarded bookmark from the British Museum…. All of these things tell you something about the character, each with its own story, and adds that backstory to your character’s psyche, to their motivations, to their hopes and dreams and fears.

Hello, Who Aren’t You?
By seeing what’s in their rooms, you’ll learn just as much about who your characters aren’t as who they are. Take my very own real-life living room for example. A dusty guitar shows you that I once believed a life in music beckoned, only never had the talent or impetus to persevere and life took a different turn, hence the dust. From the books on learning to ski and water-ski, you can infer that spending my free time sliding over the surface of the earth strapped to a plank turned out not to be the carefree joy I foolishly thought it might. There are two people that I never became right there and each of those non-people adds to the one I now am.

Take stock also of the things your characters don’t have in their rooms. What’s missing that makes them stand out from the crowd, sets them apart from the norm? Or maybe it’s anything of particular interest which is missing, leaving them as dull and lifeless as a January morning.

The Room Maketh The Man (Or Woman, Or Child, Or Alien Entity)
A pocket is a very small and empty space in which to find the hooks that will transform your characters from words on a page into vibrant beings who will live on in the minds of readers long after they finish the final chapter. Next time you find a character isn’t living and breathing for you, try this exercise:

  • Take 15 minutes
  • Write out a list of items which you think that character would have around their living space. It doesn’t need to be an exhaustive inventory, 10 or 15 pieces will do nicely.
  • Now sketch a line of backstory about where and how and why those items became so important to their owner that they still retain a place within daily view. Just a line, no more.
  • At the end of 15 minutes, read through what you have and feel how much more intimately you know this person.

Now take the sketch and pin it up prominently somewhere around your writing space to refer back to whenever that character begins to flag.

Or you could always keep it in your pocket.

Jon Simmonds of

9 Responses

  1. I like this suggestion, Jon. I suppose I already have my small ways of doing this, but doing it purposefully, as you suggest, should help a great deal to bring characters to life.

  2. Great exercise, thanks – I need some character development stuff.

    Having said that, my handbag has a book, a journal, a notebook, at least 3 pens (in case one – or two – run out. Can never be too safe!), my grandad’s keyring, fruit & nut mix, and NZ Earl Grey tea + wallet and keys. Never underestimate a woman’s handbag :p

    1. Lol Zee. I agree – women’s handbags can be very telling but maybe only us women writers would know that:)

      1. No, but if anyone else ever picks it up I often get asked if it’s got bricks in it… it’s a handbag and weight-training and self-defence all in one!

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