24 September, 2012

Characterisation: A Self-Portrait

If you were a fictional character, what would your author write about you to help give the reader a quick sense of who you are and what you're like? 

What do you carry with you, wear or say that gives you away?

I recently had an experience which got me thinking. In Guernsey airport, for some reason a security man (from the infamous G4S) decided he needed to take every item out of my hand luggage to inspect it. And while I was standing there trying to look like I had nothing to hide, I realised that by rummaging through my bag he could work out so much about me. It was a little disappointing.

My bag contained, among other things:
  • two books of short stories
  • one notebook full of ideas for characters and plot lines
  • a bible*
  • a keyring containing a Tesco clubcard fob, a Devon library card fob and a Yaris car key
  • an inhaler
  • a box of hayfever tablets
  • a massive bag of chocolate buttons
  • a scuffed digital camera in a case that doesn't belong to it and a cheap mobile phone
  • contact lenses in a travel case

You see what I mean? I am a reader, writer and Christian. I live in Devon and drive to Tesco in my Yaris to do the shopping. I have asthma, hayfever and a dependence on chocolate. I like to record important events but don't care for modern gadgets. I wear contact lenses. All that without even opening my purse to look at the bank/membership/loyalty/blood donor cards and photo of my husband.

When writing, the contents of somebody's bag can tell the reader a lot about them. But of course, there would be no point in telling the reader all those facts about me unless they were relevant. With the exception of the camera and phone - which does at least tell you my attitude towards technology without having to write, "Chloe was not bothered about keeping up with the latest innovations" - most of my bag told you nothing about my personality. Unless I am a suspect in a crime novel who swears I've never been to Tesco in my life - in which case the Tesco fob (a subtle reference to this will have been slipped into chapter two) is very significant - the rest is probably irrelevant.

Of course, any of these items could be a red herring, or hide something more sinister. Can you think of a more interesting reason why I might be carrying any of those things? Planning to bump-off somebody with diabetes, perhaps? Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes would find something incriminating in the mundane I'm sure!

Readers need to know the key points of your character's personality and appearance - not heights, weights, skin colouring, medical complaints or favourite food. And if you can reveal all those things through showing little details, rather than writing descriptive passages, then so much the better. Don't tell me your man is allergic to cats, even if it's important; have him sneeze when a cat jumps on his lap! (And then don't ruin it by adding. ' "I'm sorry, I'm allergic to cats," he said.')

 What would the contents of your bag/ car glove box/ pockets say about you?

*the bible was the only thing the security man didn't look through in great detail. All the other books he flicked through and read bits of. So if you ever need to smuggle a bit of paper out of Guernsey, I suggest slipping it into the pages of a bible!


  1. I think having a custom made handbag, complete with iPad shaped pocket probably says quite a lot about my like of technology and my desire to compartmentalise life.

    1. Paul was just saying to me (a little wistfully) as we drove away yesterday that there are advantages of being in a marriage where you both love technology and both have an income. Poor man. Drew a short straw there with me! He was very impressed with your media centre!

      Is your handbag custom-made by you or your husband?x

    2. Custom made by me :)

      I think we did well to get some of our fancier bits of technology when we did, we're not feeling so rich now. The media centre runs off a Raspberry Pi at a sum total of £30 - I like it when things look good, but don't take much saving up for!

    3. No, buying houses does have that effect on finances! worth it though, it seems :) Suddenly all my friends are buying houses!

  2. I'll remember that little tip about smuggling things out of Guernsey. Not that I've ever had to smuggle things. Or travelled to Guernsey.

    Did you take down the security guy's name? Cause if he comes out with a book that is eerily simlar to yours, you'll know why. :)

    1. You could also only really smuggle bits of paper or codes. Which has limited uses.

  3. My bag is now a satchel - I think that says it all without having to go very far. : D

    It's filled with pens, notebooks, diary, ipod, phone and umbrella. Depending on the week it might have a "How things work" magazine, or Mslexia, or poetry mag.

    I'd love to see what was in somebody's bag who was so very different (not a writer).

    1. I'd love a satchel! Proper old-school leather (sorry vegetarians!). Mslexia - good magazine and great website. Love them!

  4. As we've come to expect, Chloe, that's an interesting post and works on more than one level. In my plot-driven mind, the bag and its contents are a distraction from what you're REALLY carrying about your person. I was once stopped by US Customs with three copies of my manuscript in a suitcase, and had to convince them that I wasn't there to work. Luckily for me they never searched my coat pocket, which contained a couple of unsigned Official Secrets Act forms.

    I enjoy a good rucksack if I can fit everything into it. Casual, slightly shabby and unlikely to attract attention. And the rucksack's the same!

  5. US Customs officers are on a permanent power trip from what I've heard. My husband gets flustered every time he has to go over for work meetings. One of his colleagues is British Asian and somehow always gets "randomly selected" for security checks.

    Perhaps that's a whole different characterisation trick. Just as some people look like their dogs, maybe some other people look like their bags!

  6. Hi Chloe. Absence due to novel-writing (as I think you know). Now on third and final draft so only days to do. Relevance? In the bag I take to work I always have among other things my clipboard with a refill pad and right on top is my brainstorm sheet with all my story's characters.
    Apart from that my hi-vis vest padlock and lights would suggest I was using a bike ... and my yogurt, sandwiches and fruit would tell any observer I tried to eat healthy.
    Until last weekend my keys would have told them I was a member of store management, but now my card will only tell them who I work for.
    As always, I liked your post and you always leave me with a bit of thinking to do. Just for the record the 'hero' of my latest short story is a British Asian. Off to your next one.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.