Are Your Characters Material Girls?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff lately.  Not stuff in the big picture kind of way but actual stuff.  Things.  Material possessions.

Mostly because I am trying to figure out a way to get my stuff, which has been in storage and at friends’ houses, down here to SC.  Wondering what I need, what I don’t need.  Now it stands to reason that if I haven’t needed it in 2 years I probably don’t need it at all.  And that may be true.  But some of that stuff is part of who I am.  My Uncle Bob’s cane from 1900.  My boxes and boxes of books. The wonderful pottery my oldest daughter has made over the years.  The childhood creations of my youngest daughter.  My snowglobe collection.  Silly items, some of them, and unnecessary in the great scheme of things.  But things that hold significance to me. Things that chart a life. Not define it, but trace its roots, and its path.

I got rid of much of my stuff when I went into storage: furniture, kitchen ware, clothes, jewelry, my old TV.  I’m not terribly materialistic, and those things held no importance to me.  But my Bee Gees albums from the 70s, well, those are part of my past.  And the Anne of Green Gables books, and the Black Stallion books, and the snow globes from all over the world, they are a time capsule of the Christy I was at different times in my life.  The Christy in bellbottoms crying over How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? or singing along to How Deep is Your Love? Or David Bowie singing Changes while we danced around in our underwear in the college dorm.  Or the first time I read Anna Karenina and thought my life had been changed forever.

I think the things that are important to a person say a lot about who that person is.  I find I don’t have much in common with people who treasure their cars (though I did love my Saab convertible) or their jewelry (though I have my great grandmother’s engagement ring and wouldn’t part with it for anything).  But stuff for stuffs sake doesn’t interest me.  You can keep your Mercedes and your 5000 sq foot house and your big screen TV.

I’ve been applying this to my writing lately in interesting ways.  Showing a character’s attachment to certain possessions can tell us so much about him without ever having to say anything else.  Say a character has a collection of maps papering her bedroom wall but has never been anywhere outside of her hometown.  You can feel the longing without ever saying she really wants to get out of where she is.  You just know she is too afraid to go anywhere outside her comfort zone but wants to desperately.

Think about the material things you value.  Then think about all that other junk cluttering your life.  Why do you keep it?  I know a woman who collects margarine tubs – thousands of them.  When asked why she keeps them all, she says, you never know when you might need them.  Is that fear really about being without a margarine tub?  My guess is it that it is a fear of something much deeper, like empty cupboards.  I’ll let the professionals figure her out, but I can use that same sort of thing to show the fears and wants of a character in a way that makes us empathize with her, understand her.

Get to know the things your characters want, and need, and treasure.  I bet you’ll get to know them much better.  Then do the same with your own stuff.  What is important to you and what does that tell you about yourself?


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