The Things Characters Carry & Chekhov’s Gun
Even when a character’s daily essentials don’t actually make the final cut of the novel, I like to know what he or she carries around. In The Knife and the Butterfly, Azael carries just about everything he’s got (which isn’t much) in his backpack. An inventory of these items actually makes its way into the novel. For an infinitely more masterful instance of personal objects used to develop story and character, check out Tim O’Brien’s aptly named story “The Things They Carried” from the collection by the same name.
Knowing what characters carry is a bit different from what rockstar writer/teacher Tayari Jones writes about in this post about using significant objects to develop character. Since we sometimes carry things by accident or without actually knowing why they matter to us, inventorying the things a character carries early in the drafting process can open up possibilities for plot that the writer might not have anticipated. By contrast, the (already) significant object works mostly to reinforce what the author already knows about a character.
How does knowing what a character has with him or her plant a plot possibility? Consider the “Chekhov’s gun” idea: if a gun appears in act one of a play, it should go off by the end. You could take this as meaning, on the one hand, that we shouldn’t include unnecessary details. But if you think about things from the author’s point of view, putting the gun (or stone or letter or photograph or whatever) there in the first place calls for the writer to fashion a plot that will make that object meaningful in some way.
So don’t be afraid to put something in a character’s pocket; see what happens when you write with that object in mind. You might find that it tugs the story into a new, exciting direction. And if it does, you can let the reader in on the magic.
P.S. Thinking through or making up a character’s stuff is the kind of thing I do in my writer’s notebook. If you want to write, you need a writer’s notebook. And if this sort of exercise interests you, check out Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens. (I wrote about this book and some of my other favorite writing tools here.) This book makes you think through all kinds of crazy details about your characters. It’s a great tool for zero drafting, which I talk about here.