Thursday, 26 March 2009

When a Thing becomes a Character

What happens when part of a setting is so completely integrated into a story that it magically transforms from a Thing into a Character?

Take this rock wall from a photo I snapped somewhere along one of our road trips. It could simply be part of the setting -- background detail to help ground the reality of where our characters are and what they see, maybe even showing how they feel about it that defines them somewhat. This is the typical use of description, even when it's describing such a gorgeous scene as this wall.

On the other hand, it could become such an important part of the story that the story wouldn't be the same without it. It could be a catalyst for a character to change. Maybe he passes it every day and ponders it for miles afterwards, so much so that it becomes a part of him. Maybe he becomes as rigid and strong as that rock wall while allowing enough subtle growth to let himself flourish like the hardy vegetation hanging on to its side.

I used this device in Finishing Touches, my novel about a young artist fighting against being an artist because she marries one and feels she can't compete with him. Throughout the story, she often refers to the huge window in their loft that allows her to look out at the world while staying safely closed within. To my delight, one of my readers picked up on the characterization of the window and how it helped define Jenna herself. It reflects her struggle to look out or to stay in, her urging to explore her art and use it, or to give in to her insecurity of not being good enough. This theme reaches beyond art and into other areas of her life.

Her artist spouse, who she loses just before the story begins, paints a scene of them wrapped in only a blanket looking out at the river below. The window, here, becomes a metaphor of the exposure Jenna feels because of his professional career, because she becomes known as his wife and attracts another young artist who is a fan of his work. Still, it keeps a boundary. She may be exposed but she's beyond anyone's bounds to be able to reach. Or so she believes.

The window becomes a character. The story would hardly be the same story without it.

I'm sure other authors here have used the same technique. I'd love to hear about their character objects in the comments!

Finishing Touches is available as a Trade Paperback and as an Ebook. Find its website for more information at


Lindsay Townsend said...

A very thought-provoking post, Loraine - thank you!

May I print off and show to my creative writing students, please? I've just complete a class with them on setting and how a setting can be a character almost in its own right and your post perfectly shows this.

I love your ideas about the window and how Jenna feels 'framed' by it, both trapped and protected by it.

I often find water as a setting appears in my work - water as fluid, mobile, sensual, life-giving.

Thanks again for a really super post.

LK Hunsaker said...

Lindsay, sure, go ahead and use it! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

I use water a lot, also. It does have a lot to say, doesn't it?

Chelle Cordero said...

I am also going to forward this blog to my creative writing students; it is truly thought provoking.

I admit this isn't something I have given a lot of thought to, but I plan to go over all of my past writing now to see if it is anything I inadvertently did...

Dee S Knight and Anne Krist said...

Loraine, this was a wonderful post! Very well done. I now believe I should have been giving more consideration to objects in my work and use this technique to advantage. I can't think where I have so far, except...

In a current WIP about a nun, she uses her habit as a shield to hide behind. And also, the convent is a way to hide from things she doesn't want to face. Having read your piece, I'm going to search for ways to make those things a larger part of who she is and more symbolic of her feelings.


LK Hunsaker said...

Chelle, I'm flattered.

I didn't intentionally set out to turn a window into a character; I only knew that window was important and it became a character on its own. I'd be interested to know what you find.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, LK! (Chelle, may I also borrow your thoughts on romantic suspense for my writing class?)

Best wishes, Lindsay

Jane Richardson, writer said...

I love this idea, Loraine. It's true, environment or things can be a very successful metaphor for a character, and I'm sure we often do it subconciously. I know I use places, spaces, in the same way - enclosed and oppressive, wide and free. I'm going to keep a copy of this, if I may! Good food for thought - thank you. :)

Jane x

LK Hunsaker said...

Dee/Anne, the exploration of the habit and convent as a shield sounds intriguing. I'm already wondering as a shield for what exactly.

Jane, yes I would have to guess we all use these metaphors subconsciously. It's nice when readers pick up on that because I think it does imply a certain connection we've made. We all have our windows and water and convents of sorts.

I appreciate the comments and am so glad it's useful! I think I'll expand it a bit and add it to my site. :-)

Savanna Kougar said...

Loraine, beautifully expressed about how objects become characters. I know in my own writing process a lot of it is unconscious until I see what I'm doing and expand on it.
However, I did know Gardenia, New Atlantis was a character when I began writing that story. The town is always being shaped by the people of New Atlantis, as well as shaping them.

LK Hunsaker said...

Savanna, how true about people and their towns shaping each other! It sounds like an interesting read only from that tidbit of information. ;-)