WHAT HE OWNS
When we define our characters as they walk onto the page, we risk establishing boundaries that constrain our readers’ interpretations of them. If, though, we allow readers to get to know our characters, they’ll interpret them in their own way, perhaps grasping a deeper sense of who they are than what we could have conveyed in our summaries. It all goes back to the craft’s bottom line—Show, Don’t Tell.
Was she wearing a chunky knit cardigan with brown wooden buttons and skinny jeans tucked into her boots, or a Gatsby-esque hat and woolen cape accessorized by a cigarette twiddled as though it were chalk with which she scrawled notes on an invisible blackboard? Did his polyester pants and bushy sideburns suggest he owned a ferret named Duke? Did she drive a Mini Cooper while he kept a shrine of family photos on display at the office?
In Kevin Anderson’s Resurrection, Inc., we find the protagonist at work—
On the pocket of the tech’s nonporous lab smock, he had carefully stenciled his name, Rodney Quick, so no one would steal it.
The object referred to tells us where the protagonist is and what he does. It has defining quality that expresses Rodney Quick’s nature. He is a paranoid man, so distrustful that he fears someone might steal something as lackluster as a lab smock.
Duncan Peck, in Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb, has a secondhand book collection on subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to obscure anthropology, to the mystical writings of the Chinese sage Lao-tzu. Clearly, this is a man looking for meaning. In Celestial Navigations, Tyler uses one of the Pauling sisters to show the house Jermey Pauling, Tyler’s protagonist, shared with his now-deceased mother. As we look through her eyes, we exit the living room with a psychological profile on the entire clan.
Chipped figurines, a barometer, a Baby Ben that worked and a grandmother clock that didn’t, a whole row of Kahlil Gibran, a leaning tower of knitting magazines, peacock feathers stuck behind the mirror. Cloudy tumblers half full of stale water, a Scrabble set, a vaporizer, a hairbrush choked with light brown hair, an embroidery hoop, a paperback book on astrology, an egg-stained shawl, doilies on doilies, Sears Roebuck catalogues, ancient quilted photo albums, a glass swan full of dusty colored marbles, plants escaping their pots and sprawling along the windowsill.
On the table beside me, a bottle of Jergens lotion and a magnifying glass and a patented news-item clipper. (How she loved to clip news items! They stuffed all her envelopes, and for years I unfolded them one by one and tried to figure out their relevance to me. I never could. Puppies were rescued from sewer pipes, orphaned rabbits were nursed by cats, toddlers splashed in wading pools on Baltimore’s first summer day. Nothing that meant anything. I learned to throw them away without a glance, as if they had come as so much padding for her wispy little notes.)
Beneath the clutter, if you could see that far, was scrolled and splintery furniture so scrawny-legged you wondered how it stood the strain. I felt anxious just looking at it. I placed my fingertips to my forehead, warding off one of my headaches; her novelty salt and pepper shakers, her patented corn removers, her Bavarian weather forecaster, her wipe-clean doilies.
Steinbeck used a character’s possession to introduce him before he entered the story. From Cannery Row—
Lee Chong’s grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded, but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and be happy-clothes, food, both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops. You could buy at Lee Chong’s a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter-pint of whisky, and a cigar….
Nothing in the paragraph describes Lee Chong, but we come away with an impression of hime. Graham Greene used a similar opening in his 1982 Monsignor Quixote, a motif of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote—
Father Quixote had ordered his solitary lunch from his housekeeper and set off to buy wine at a local cooperative eight kilometers away from El Toboso on the main road to Valencia. It was a day when the heat stood and quivered on the dry fields, and there was no air conditioning in the little Seat 600 he had bought, already second hand, eight years before. As he drove he thought sadly of the day when he would have to find a new car. A dog’s years can be multiplied by seven to equal a man’s, and by that calculation his car would still be in early middle age, but he noticed how already his parishioners began to regard his Seat as almost senile. “You can’t trust it, Don Quixote,” they would warn him, and he could only reply, “It has been with me through many bad days, and I pray God that it may survive me.” So many of his prayers had remained unanswered that he had hopes this one prayer of his had lodged all the time like wax in the Eternal.
We have known Father Quixote for all of one paragraph, but we can deduce a lot about him. Though Greene makes no direct reference to the character, instead showing us his car, his parishioners, his prayer life, we can appreciate the priest’s circumstances, turn of mind, and sense of humor. Quixote is revealed. We saw him and interpreted his nature for ourselves.
The objects our characters choose to own reveal who they are.