Character Props

I had no idea that Little Italy was so quiet in the morning. Chinatown wakes up early and stays open late, but on Mulberry north of Canal Street, most of the storefronts were shuttered before nine. I was about to give up and find a place closer to the courthouse, until I saw an older gentleman with a silver-headed walking stick open the door of Caffe Roma.

It was open! So I followed him inside.

I used to go there all the time. The pastries are authentic and the atmosphere makes it feel like a movie set. The silver wolf’s head on the walking stick sealed the deal—this place is NOT real…but it is! There were a few changes since my last visit: the coffee prices were higher and soymilk was available. Somehow, not even the idea of a soymilk cappuccino was unable to break the magic spell. Everything in the room—from the gleaming espresso machine and the wire-backed ice cream parlor chairs to the sign on the bathroom stating “For Customers Only” and the overstuffed bakery counter—created a backdrop for infinite stories.

Still, it was the walking stick that led me in the door! Why? It was an almost-too-perfect character prop. I needed coffee before jury duty, and what better place than a café that looks like a scene in a novel?

From a psychoanalyst’s pipe to Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat, props bring characters to life. In fiction, a pair of mirrored sunglasses on a federal agent or an overstuffed/oversized handbag immediately spell out specific, if clichéd, characters. These can be shortcuts between the writer and the reader, but they can also be colorful, humorous, or dramatic details that make a character believable.

Was the older gentleman a werewolf out and about during the safety of daylight hours or an elderly bon vivant? The truth doesn’t matter, but for the half hour or so that I enjoyed my biscotti & coffee—while he enjoyed his—we shared a moment that could be the opening of a story.

What props do I carry? I guess I’m a writer. I always have a notebook and a pen. What about you?

My breakfast before jury duty.

My breakfast before jury duty.


  1. What a lovely time warp!

    To be honest, I put ‘Italy’ and ‘silver-headed cane’ together to equal a maffia Don, but that’s my movie-driven expectations talking. 🙂

    I don’t use much in the way of props in my writing, but reading this article made me realise that I do use ‘hair’ a lot. Not sure why something so basic should be important to me, but apparently it is.

    • Candy Korman

      Having lived across the street from a notorious Mafia Don, I don’t associate them with silver-headed walking sticks and elegant grooming. In fact, the Don on Sullivan Street was known for faking mental illness. He walked around the neighborhood in pajamas and a robe (arm-in-arm with whomever he was giving orders to at the time as there was not way to bug the streets—unlike the businesses and social clubs) and when the FBI came to get him he walked into the shower with his clothes on to continue the charade. This is TRUE. Check out Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante.

      Is hair a prop? I guess it is. It can reveal a character and offer a disguise, too. Just like putting on the right clothes and carrying the right bag (briefcase, knapsack, walking stick, tennis racquet, etc.) might offer me a new and easily understood, if fake, persona. Um… something to think about.