The most interesting characters come alive in the smallest details: a favourite food, a favourite type of music, a fear of spiders, an allergy to plums, a scar from a fall at two years of age, a love of reality television. These details are what makes a character three dimensional and human. They may seem mundane, but think about what defines you as a person. Is it the grand events in your life, or the day to day? These details of the small add a layered richness beyond the world of the story. The more you know about your characters, the deeper the well you have to draw from, the more specifically you can write for them.
This character development exercise will allow you to create the details of the small for your characters.
What’s In Your Bag?
Empty out the bag you use most regularly, whatever you take with you when you go out. If you don’t carry a bag, think about how you carry what’s necessary – what’s in your pockets? Look at the bag itself. Why did you choose it? How long have you had it? Do you need a new one? Write out in a point form list each item in that bag.
- Why do you carry each item?
- What purpose does it hold in your life?
- Is there anything emotional in your bag?
- Is everything in your bag strictly functional?
- Is there anything in your bag that shouldn’t be?
Once you’ve answered all the questions, look back at what you’ve written. What does your bag say about you? What is expected about your answers? What is unexpected?
So, let’s see what’s in my bag. I’ll use the satchel I carry around most often. I’m not a purse type, and I’m not a carpet bag type, but this one’s big enough to carry a notebook (although not big enough for a pad of paper, which is sometimes annoying) . It’s from Mountain Equipment Co-op and I bought it in 1999. Goodness. That means it’s ten years old. It’s indestructible. And here’s the contents:
A couple of interesting things. Yes I really did pull all those pens out of the bag. There are 13. There were hair elastics in there, even though I haven’t had long hair in years. And a wack of bandaids, what exactly do I think is going to happen to me? That is way too many bandaids. (This is weird seeing some of this stuff…) I have two wallets and two sets of keys: primary and secondary. And that little white square is a letter Craig wrote me in 1992. Shhhhh, I don’t think he knows I carry it around. Don’t tell him. What does this all say? I’m a freak about pens. Like a total freak. If I was continuing with this exercise, I would write an ode to each pen and what it means to me. Because they all mean something. They do. I can’t travel with just one pen….
Now, apply the same process to the main character in whatever project you are working on. Give this character a bag. What does the bag look like? Why does the character carry this bag? If the character definitely wouldn’t carry a bag, create the reason why. How do they carry what’s necessary for their day? How old is it? Is this character the type of person who can’t leave the house without a huge bag? Once you’ve established the bag itself, make a point for list of the items in the bag.
- What do the items in the bag help the character to do?
- Is there anything job related in the bag?
- Based on what you know of the character, what items in the bag are expected?
- Put one thing in the bag which is unexpected.
- What does that unexpected item say about the character?
- What does this bag tell you about this character?
If you want to go further, write a moment that takes place in the world of your story involving this character and their bag.
Exploring the world of the small in your characters is always going to give you a wealth of material to work with.