Have you ever heard the phrase, "Books are Theatre of The Mind"? Well, as an old theatre rat, I can tell you that's a true statement. Characters, locations, intriguing plot points... in both arenas, the stage and the page, each component is carefully crafted to get you to relinquish your greatest critical tool... disbelief.
But there's one small attribute that seems to be enhanced on the stage more than on the page... Props. No, not the pats on the back that one character gives to another for a job well done... or the name dropping slang that gives us a greater understanding of where that character comes from... I'm talking about the actual Props - the physical stuff in a story that makes us feel like we're really there, and we're a part of the nuances of the story.
For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it was Holmes' pipe or his violin. For J.M. Barrie, it was James Hook's... um... hook; or that blasted ticking clock. For J.K..Rowling is was a wand, and a mirror. Consider these stories and others, and what they may have been like if these props - the important things that characters handle - had not been described with such detail. The tales would fall rather flat, wouldn't they?
Just as it's important to enhance a character with a certain voice - dialect or word choice - it's equally important to give three dimensional understanding and sometimes a little bit of mystery to the "stuff" of a character's life within the pages of your book. This will enhance our understanding of that character, and give us clues to why he or she may make the choices they make... leading them through the adventure.
For instance, if your main character is a drifter, carrying only a backpack with a few essentials, discovering that one of his coveted possessions is a small Bible, given to him by a grandparent, gives us a greater understanding of the spiritual nature of that character... discovering further that the pages were still in pristine condition, tells us even more.
Or, let's say that your main character comes home from the grocery store and begins unloading and putting away the food she's just purchased. Noticing that she only bought microwavable, frozen foods, in per-packaged, plastic containers may give us insight about her lack of cooking skills, her lack of "down time", or her simple rejection of creating a bigger hassle out of meal time than she feels is necessary.
When you write about your characters, consider the things that they handle daily. Is there a huge, complicated bathroom ritual they go through each morning... floss, toothbrush... mouthwash, hairspray, shampoo, conditioner, and drawers of make-up. What does that tell us about that character? Could it just be good grooming practices, or does it go deeper? Could this character be in a state of self-loathing, and feels that it's necessary to hide her true self from the world? Could she be focusing on her appearance to land a job, or boyfriend, or get out of a court summons?
The way your character handles cigarettes... could this elude to a neurosis like oral fetish, is that character imitating an adult of their past... old movies that make them feel "cool"... or is it simply a science experiment they are engaged in? Consider not only the WHY of their smoking habit, but also the HOW of that habit manifesting into their body language and the messages they give to those who spend time with them.
Yes, sometimes a steaming cup of coffee, cradled gently while sitting at an all-night cafe at near midnight could just mean the character wanted a cup of coffee... but it could also be connected with a past memory of an old love, or the squelching of a new memory that's too painful to bear... or the feeling of warmth generated by the aromatic liquid.
The point is, we, as writers, are obligated to give our readers a full, satisfying experience of not only our characters and the locations that we drop them into... we're also responsible to give away hints as to the nuances of those characters by showing the reader how they interact with the stuff of their daily lives. After all, we never learn everything about a character by their words alone.
Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words... and sometimes those words describe the WHY and the HOW of why the picture is important to that character. Don't short-change your reader by having their hands empty or pre-occupied without meaning.
Diana Kathryn Plopa
I love being in love; writing; reading; mammals of nearly every kind, and especially micro-humans! Come enjoy my world with me - Secret Decoder Ring not required!!