Elizabeth: Characterization

characterThis summer I went to the RWA National conference in Atlanta and was lucky enough to attend a workshop by Susan Elizabeth Phillips about writing great characters.   She talked about creating well-motivated characters with strengths and weaknesses and strong individual voices.  She also emphasized the importance of showing those details rather than just telling them.

My favorite part of the workshop was an exercise we all did together to emphasize how simple details can reveal a lot about a character.  The task was to “show” something about a character through the contents of his/her purse (or pocket), rather than just “telling” a detail.  For example, showing that Sally’s purse has three bottles of hand sanitizer, a packet of antibacterial wet-wipes, and a pair of disposable gloves rather than just saying “Sally is afraid of germs.”  Many of the participants read their purse contents aloud and it was often the unexpected item that really gave a true insight to the character, whether it was the set of fuzzy handcuffs in the business woman’s briefcase or the magic eight ball in the scientist’s pocket (a very large pocket apparently).

I did the exercise with my own character, Abigail, the heroine from my current Regency work-in-progress.  Abigail’s purse, or rather her reticule, contained a handkerchief, a few coins, a lock-pick, and a small throwing knife.  As you might guess, Abigail is not your typical demure miss, but I didn’t have to tell you that, you were able to get the idea from the contents.   I’ve used this exercise several times as a quick and easy way to get a feel for my characters and to see what’s unique about each of them.

So, what’s in your character’s purse?

14 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Characterization

  1. Fun! Well, I don’t think Perz has a purse; she’s got a toolbox and she’s got a wallet. LOL, it’s funny, you never think of, say, Bruce Willis with a man purse. OTOH, Batman has got a major bottomless purse. Where do action figures keep their junk? (No, not that kind of junk.)

    I will have to think about that for Hadiz. I just don’t see him carrying around anything. As a magical being, his clothes are all materialized as he turns into smoke and into a form. He can summon fire as he needs it (but, maybe he needs the hand sanitizer when eating at plastic tables like McDonald’s has). The Underground isn’t really a money economy . . . .

    Where did Regency men keep their crap? They are always pulling snuff boxes out of somewhere, but those tight breeches and fitted jackets just don’t seem conducive to keeping stuff.

    Speaking of which, I just read some fabulous posts about chatelaines — a toolbox on a chain, basically. Can’t remember where — probably Two Nerdy History Girls, or a link from there.

    • Michaeline, chatelaines are wonderful things aren’t they? Basically everything you need at your fingertips. For the Regency servant, the chatelaine was a good indicator of their status in the household.

      Regarding where the Regency men kept their things, I’m guessing the pockets in their coats, most likely. The pants were close fitting, as you mention, but the waistcoats often had pockets for things like watches and the coat over that had a few pockets too (in the examples I’ve seen). Guess it’s lucky they didn’t have to carry around cell phones and things like that or they’d look pretty lumpy. Of course if they were wealthy enough, they had people to carry things for them 🙂

  2. I loved that workshop!

    My heroine carries a battered denim record bag, and in it you’d find a sketch-book and a selection of pencils, half a dozen vintage beads and buttons, a clunky pay-as-you-go mobile phone in a protective case hand-painted with wild roses, and a discount voucher for a budget restaurant chain.

    • Jilly, she sounds like an interesting juxtaposition between free-spirit and practicality. Looking forward to reading her story.

  3. Sorry I missed that!

    Cheyenne doesn’t carry a purse (can’t even imagine her with one), she has a backpack.

    Contents:
    A swiss army knife, a compass, a magnifying glass
    Sunglasses, Lipstick, brush, hairspray, hair scrunches, safety pins, first aid kit
    A water bottle, dog biscuits, a dog leash
    Notebook and pens
    Map of Arizona
    Chocolate, granola bars, chewing gum
    A pair of running shoes, a hoodie
    A role of toilette paper
    The dummy’s guide to car repair
    A mini-set of tools
    Emergency money tucked into a zippy pocket
    Pepper spray and whistle

    • Kat, that sounds like a girl I knew a long time ago who always had a backpack with her that was full of everything she would need to survive, should disaster strike at any time. Your Cheyenne sounds like she’s ready for anything too.

  4. I also enjoyed that workshop. The best example for me was SEP’s — her character had girly-girl stuff in her purse, like plush red lipstick, a silky scarf, and a bottle of pink sparkle nail polish. Then she did the exercise again and the same character had all of those things and a driver’s license with the name Leroy Jones on it. 🙂 Totally changes your impression of the character!

    My heroine has in her reticule an extra pair of kid gloves, spectacles, two sovereigns, lace handkerchief, house key, and calling cards. Pretty boring. I should spice that up a bit. SEP suggested one extraordinary thing to shake up the character.

    Also, I looked back at the notes from that lecture and SEP suggested using a man’s car, house wallet, or how he treats people as his “purse.”

      • Exactly. There are many thing you could use to give an idea of the character. It was thinking of the “one extraordinary thing” that caused a set of lock picks to wind up in Abigail’s reticule. Now that she’s about to do some housebreaking, that will come in very handy.

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