Things — a mysterious music box, an engraved cigarette lighter, a missing letter opener, an old hat, a signet ring… Things often play critical roles in mysterious fiction. In addition to the role object play as clues — a torn corner of a map, a cereal box filled with hundred dollar bills, a bloody pillow case or suspicious cat hair on a rug — things can be used by a writer to illuminate a character’s inner life. They can be talismans that link to a character’s back-story or simply fill in the missing pieces in a description of a character offering a short-cut to a three dimensional character.
Of course things can get in the way of true character development. How many times have you read a paragraph describing a personality with a list of designer names? The Jimmy Choos, the Chanel suit, etc. unless the character is a “fashion-ista,” it’s a cheap shortcut.
I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just saying that it only works when it makes sense in the specific context — if the character really sees the world through the pages of fashion magazines. Most of the time, things that represent a character need to be as original as the personality with whom they are connected.
More often than not, there’s one thing — one object — that can help the reader get to the heart of a character. It could be the battered, old, portable typewriter he stubbornly continues to use in a world filled with computers or the umbrella she carries even on sunny days, that reveals insights into the character that don’t have to be spelled out in the narrative.
And then there’s Rosebud — the famous sled in “Citizen Kane.” That sled is an important thing!