by Tamela Hancock Murray
I just saw a funny short video about how to go from boring to fancy. Examples included labeling the same bread as “bread” and then “artisan bread” and the identical “cheddar” as “aged cheddar.” I would have gone with “artisan” cheddar, myself. The last time our family dined in a restaurant with my in-laws in Connecticut, “Cheese made by Vermont artisans,” was offered as an appetizer.
How about adding letters to an ordinary word? An example: Ye Olde Shoppe. Would you rather shoppe there than shop at Nordstrom?
Does drinking water out of a crystal goblet make the water seem fancier than drinking the same water out of an everyday glass?
How about paying money for water that comes bottled instead of from the tap? I have read articles that claim some bottled water is, in reality, tap water. I don’t know if that’s true.
Since I’m a literary agent, I’m always about two steps from putting just about anything into the context of books. As I watched the video, I couldn’t help but think about character markers. How “fancy” are your characters? Is your current WIP populated with suburbanites paying plenty to dine on artisan cheese or cowgirls sprinkling store-brand shredded cheddar on tuna casserole they made themselves? I suppose this example comes to mind since though I’m not a cowgirl, I’ll be sprinkling lots of Harris Teeter shredded cheddar on my homemade tuna casserole tonight.
Better yet, how do you keep your character markers fresh? The “beat-up Chevy” is an easy marker for a character of limited means, but I don’t find it especially original. Neither is a rich person driving a Ferrari. Give me character markers — yes. Those are great shortcuts to show us your character’s values. But don’t just give a rich character a Rolex, Dolce and Gabbanna perfume, Bulgari sunglasses, Christian Louboutin shoes, a Prada purse, a Bentley, and a Tiffany ring. Likewise, don’t just give your poor characters clunker cars. You can, but perhaps also let us know that Dad gave them the car as a graduation present. And away from the car issue, you might show us how creative they are with thrift store and yard sale finds. Or perhaps show the character spending where she needs to spend and being thrifty when she can. Perhaps she splurged on a string of cultured pearls or gold hoop earrings on sale at the local family jeweler, and wears them every day as a signature.
Even more interesting is why those markers mean something to the character. For instance, when I was a little girl, Grandma Hancock liked to wear a fox stole. The kind where the foxes bite each others’ tails.
My mother thinks it’s creepy. But my grandmother left it to me in her will because I was always so fascinated with the stole when I was a little girl. I don’t wear the stole, despite my husband’s jokes I should wear it to the ACFW banquet, but it means a lot to me.
My other grandmother, “Precious,” gave me two coats with fox fur collars. I don’t wear them because the cut and colors are out of style, but they mean a lot to me. Why? Not only are they from my grandmothers, but the items represent luxury enjoyed by rural women who were richer in love than money.
If you give a character a possession marker, say, a Rolex watch, why does he own it? Is because the name is famous and he has recently become wealthy? Or did his father own a Rolex? Or three?
Or does your hero wear a Timex and wouldn’t buy a Rolex if he had the money? Or he has the money but chooses to not to buy traditional markers of the wealthy?
Let me give a word of caution on characters with designer knockoffs. The fashion industry considers knockoffs a form of stealing. By “knockoff” I do not mean a Chanel-inspired bag your character bought at Macys. I refer to an item that’s a direct imitation, meant to deceive.
Of course, you never want to get too bogged down with your characters’ possessions. But having her share a story about a key item can be fun and enlightening. Just like learning about a real-life friend you want to know.
Do you wear a signature piece of jewelry or perfume? Have you thought of giving a character this type of marker?
What is the most memorable character marker you have seen?
In the context of a great story, do you prefer to read about characters who are extremely rich or extremely poor?