A Thing for Things

            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!


  1. I don’t care for the use of designer labels most of the time. The limitations that they impose on the story out weigh their ease of use. Of course your example of character development is the most obvious example. Then we can add in how these names can date the writing (which can be handy in a period piece not so much for other stories). And then when the audience just doesn’t know the names you are using their power is diffused.

    It would essentially be asking your reader to do homework to find enjoyment in the story.

    • Candy Korman

      And we all know that very few readers want to work!

      It’s funny, but if I were to write something set in the late 60’s I might pepper in a bit of Peter Max or Andy Warhol (two ubiquitous artists of the time) but you’d be right about some of the readers being left out of the loop. I’d have to include at least one sentence of explanation. Period details can be helpful — but they are not short-cuts the way contemporary references can be.

      Still other objects — objects uniquely associated with that character — can help focus the reader on aspects of a character’s personality. A few years back a friend was taking a photography class and asked me to pose in my apartment for a portrait (I got pix for mom out of it!). One of them was posed in front of my bookcase with forensic science books and people in her class correctly identified me as a mystery writer. She didn’t have to tell them a thing about me.

  2. ‘Things’ have great significance to me too, but I often don’t understand what that significance is, until the 2nd draft [clearly my subconscious has been hard at work behind the scenes and the rest of me has to catch up].

    As a reader, I sort of understand those designer references, but they all just shriek ‘Pretentious!’ to me. I can go weak at the knees over the softness of a…piece of silk, but a label has no such tactile connotations. lol I think I’m just a pleb!

    • Candy Korman

      You are so right about seeing the significance in the second draft. I think we chose totems for some characters without thinking about it and when we read what we’ve written we see the importance of a particular object. It just jumps out and says… “I’m a part of this character!”

  3. I’m never in favor of merely listing brands without the writer providing context to their importance regarding plot or character motivation. That being said, there’s a big difference between a character who yearns for Velveeta or Camembert. More and more often writers use generics where specifics would add much more detail and interest to their story. I always get annoyed when I’m given feedback to fully explain allusions. Part of the fun of reading is how allusions can help the reader broaden the scope of the story, but in this day and age the tendency is to explain what might otherwise go right over a reader’s head.

    • Candy Korman

      Specificity is powerful! The character fond of Coltrane is so much more real than the “jazz fan”; a passion for 85% dark chocolate creates a different impression than “she likes chocolate”; and he collects Abstract Expressionists is so much better than “he has an art collection.” Will every reader understand Coltrane, 85% dark chocolate and Abstract Expressionists? Probably not, but they’ll glean it from the context and/or look it up.

      I love the Velveeta or Camembert comparison. Two very different people immediately come to mind — with different habits, ideas, friends, etc. — all from that one, little cheesy comparison.