Friday, September 21, 2018

Making Things Into Characters


I loved my first car. She was a hideous 1976 AMC Pacer, as gray as old, tired eyes, lined with rust-worn trim, doors like battleship hatches, and enough glass surrounding the driver to make the car an honorary fishbowl. I bought that beauty for three-hundred dollars when she was ten years old (that’s like a senior citizen in 1970s car years), poured a bunch of cash into getting her healthy, and probably spent more time pushing her than driving. And when she died in a terrible wreck on a foggy back road, my heart broke a little (along with three vertebrae – different story.) I’ve had many cars since, but she was my first.

The enigmatic 1976 AMC Pacer
This is not an uncommon story. As much as I loved that AMC Pacer, the same can be said for most people and their first cars. However, when it comes to writing, expressing that love is not as easy. After all, loving another person is different than loving one ton of Detroit steel. To make our readers understand these deep feelings for a car, a house, or any other inanimate object, we need to use our tools in a new way.

The first tool is our, “show, don’t tell” rule, which we should use all the time. When we use this in showing one’s feelings toward an object, it can be easily accomplished through one demonstrative technique. Offer a simple scene: the main character washing the car in the afternoon sun, meticulously putting extra wax over the rust spots in a vain effort to hold off decay, picking bugs off the grill one-by-one. We now know there is something special between car and character.

This becomes even more effective in dialogue. When a character talks about their car, imagine that character talking about their significant other, or someone they have a huge crush on. Think of the times you felt that way, let those emotions build up, then write them down as dialogue about the car. The best compliment you can get in those situations is when a reader later says, “I had to reread that to see if you were talking about a person.”

And this leads us to the best tool we can use to turn an object into a character – personification. In the simplest description, this is giving personal attributes to inanimate or non-human objects. In life we do it all the time. We describe our pets with human traits, we give emotions to the weather, and even symbolize nature itself as a woman. 

The simplest personification is through pronouns. Look at the first paragraph of this post. My car is referred to as a she. This is commonplace with cars, boats, planes, and most any other vehicle. (Unofficial rule: When we trust our life with an object, it automatically becomes a she.) I also referred to my car’s health, compared her age to a senior citizen, and described her loss as a death. These little tricks bond items to their owners as far as the reader is concerned, and the relationship is solidified.

Of course, this does not have to be an affectionate relationship. Read Stephen King’s Christine or From A Buick 8 to see how ties to a car can have a downside. The point is that exploring ways to turn objects into characters creates another very relatable facet for your writing. Furthermore, watch what happens to your story if that character loses the object of their desire. The reader should feel just as bad as the character does, or as bad as I did when I lost my beautiful Pacer.

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