Continuing on with the characterization section of writing exercises, this activity emphasizes the literal surroundings of our characters as they exist in a setting.
This reminds me a lot of my play writing class I took last year. If you ever go to plays (I recently saw Phantom of the Opera with my mom – it was fantastic) try paying close attention to the props on stage. They’re likely telling you additional things about the characters, that you can’t get from action and dialogue alone.
Page 40 in the book.
“A lot of beginning fiction writers fail to understand how important it is to tell the reader where a scene is taking place and just what ‘props’ are present to indicate a character’s personality and economic and/or marital status. No one exists in a blank space; people live and work in rooms or offices or barns or factories. The particular clothes, furniture, food, pictures, computers, etc., with which you surround your characters tell the reader a good deal about the characters’ inner and outer lives, their tastes, backgrounds, and health, both mental and physical.
“The exercise: Invent a character. Then list most – but not necessarily all – of the items in his/her clothes closet, medicine cabinet, and refrigerator/freezer. Each object should inform your reader’s understanding of who your characters are and how they live – or want to live. Think of yourself as the set designer or wardrobe person of a movie or a play. What kind of lamp would you put on the side table? How would you dress the grandmother? Each item has to perform what words articulate.
“The objective: To understand the subliminal power of the objects surrounding and on the body of a character. An author who was hyper-aware of this power was Edith Wharton. Read her novel The Age of Innocence to see her close attention to what we call ‘props.'”
Two of their student examples (I’m separating into paragraphs here, which is not done in the book):
Bathroom: a foldout convex/concave mirror over the sink, an electric toothbrush, expensive eau de cologne, a tube of Rogaine, and a pair of hairbrushes.
Medicine cabinet: Ambien, Anacin, mouthwash, condoms, and personal lubricant.
Bedroom: electric shoe polisher, electric pants presser, battery-driven revolving rack of neckties. Framed photo of self and mother, framed photo of self with Dartmouth crew. On the wall a Dartmouth 1986 class banner. Double bed.
Refrigerator: champagne, vodka, pate, tonic, soda, canned juice.
On a desk in the living room: a combined telephone/answering machine/fax, a pile of telephone books, and a street map of greater Boston. – Taylor Wombat
Stuffed animals on bed. Magazines strewn: Vanity Fair, Vogue, People, US. Posters of Elton John, David Bowie, The Police. Humongous TV in bedroom. Lots of pocketbooks in closet – maybe fourteen pairs of shoes. Man’s rugby shirt and shorts balled up on closet floor; also the guy’s shoes. – Mark Tobias.
Medicine cabinet: Ambien, Lunesta, Rozerem. Valium, Xanax, Zoloft. Asprin, DayQuil, NyQuil. Two bottles of Listerine, three tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste, four containers of dental floss with a dental floss holder for each. Band-Aids, gauze, medical tape. A man’s sterling silver wedding band.
Nightstand: On top – a reading lamp, the kind that you can bend and twist in any direction; a pile of five romance novels, two of which have a sexy fireman on the cover; a cigarette lighter. In the drawer – condoms, a battery-operated vibrator complete with additional attachments, three different kinds of moisturizing cream, a picture of a married couple on their honeymoon, a marriage certificate, a death certificate.
Any comments on what I was going for with my character?
It’s all in the details. It’s all about specifics. Take this with you not just with props, but with scenery as well.
Instead of, “She passed tall trees driving down the dark street” say, “She passed tall oak trees and taller poplar trees driving down the street, as plump, shadowy clouds trailed her car overhead.”