Gollum famously spoke these words in Lord of the Rings while looking for the One Ring, which Bilbo – and then Frodo – carried with him.
The ring gave powers to the wearer and spoke volumes about the person who carried it. It was one of the defining things about the characters and told of their quest as well as their character and motives.
You too can use the contents of your character’s pockets (or handbags) to build a picture of them as a person and to introduce elements of story.
Building a Bigger Picture
It’s often said about writing a story that you should know more than you reveal. While this is true, you don’t need to build a complete life story. It will be enough to build a picture of the relevant parts of a life so you can reveal what is necessary to the story.
Your character will need some kind of history that hints at their internal and external conflicts, expectations, and dreams; the parts of their life that will create the tangled web that holds the reader’s interest. Without this your character could seem dull and lifeless; more of a 2D cartoon than a 3D flesh-and-blood person who readers can believe in against the odds.
Dip Into Your Pockets
Try thinking about what someone carries in his/her pockets. It can be a great way to build up a picture of your character. What we carry with us can tell a great deal about who we are and what we do. It makes us real and that is what you are striving for in your writing – making your character real and believable.
What do you have in your pockets right now? What does this say about you? It’s not just the obvious things like credit card, wallet or purse, drivers licence, and keys that we carry. I have a stone that is special to me, a pen and notebook, a till receipt from a recent purchase, a nasal inhaler, eyedrops, and my work keys as well as my house and car keys. What can you glean from this? Why do I need an inhaler? Where do I work and what does my job entail? Let your imagination run riot to fill in the gaps.
This is not an exercise for you to list the contents of someone’s pockets in the story itself – that could be boring. Hopefully it will get you thinking about the deeper layers of the person you are creating – thinking about other aspects of their lives that will give more depth and believability to your character. It’s all very well creating major dramatic aspects of someone’s life if you can’t make them believable with the smaller, ordinary, day-to-day personal traits, mannerisms, interests, and involvements that we all have as people. It is what makes us who we are.
Get Rid of Expectation
You may already have in mind who your character is and what they are like. Consequently, you may start thinking of things you’d expect to see in their pockets. If you have someone who is an archaeologist, you might expect to find a battered notebook, a piece of chalk, bits of mud or pottery. What if you discovered he also carried a love letter?
Your reader is more likely to be intrigued to find that the archaeologist has a love life, rather than just digging up old bones and pottery. Suddenly he’s not just an archaeologist – he’s a man. You don’t even have to mention the letter in your story. What you are doing is creating an aspect of his life that gives him substance and depth; it makes him real. Introduce the lover into the story and give it a whole new twist.
When carrying out this exercise, don’t just rely on yourself to think about pocket contents, get someone you know to either reveal the contents of their pockets or to think of something for you. You’re more likely to come up with something unexpected, something to add depth and interest. You can ask yourself, why do they carry this thing? What would they do with it? What does it mean to them?
More importantly, you have to ask yourself what this aspect will do for the story. Where will it take it? What relevance does it have to your story? After all, everything in your story needs relevance – that’s what your readers want. If you introduce something irrelevant readers will be asking themselves, what was that about?
And you won’t want that.