This 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?