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?
Since I’m in the Detroit area, I naturally notice the cars people drive. One thing that always struck me was that salary employees like engineers and accountants tend to drive the beaters while the hourly UAW parking lot was full of brand new cars. It’s the culture here (and why so many people around here are deeply in debt). I like the character of “the millionaire next door.” He lives simply, buys used cars, and doesn’t even have cable TV. My favorite markers were the Firebirds in every King novel. When I think of a ’74 Firebird, I immediately get an image of a teenage kid, a drop out who smokes pot daily and stocks shelves on the midnight shift at the local supermarket. Sure enough, King always had that guy driving the Firebird.
Yay! Another “Harris Teeter” gal!
With skin allergies, I gave up wearing jewelry, except for my wedding ring, a long time ago.
I always choose a signature perfume for my characters, so the base notes/scents become part of who they are. Love your idea of taking it one step further by asking why the marker means something to the character.
Great post, Tamela!
I don’t wear jewelry (except my wedding ring) or fancy clothes –usually jeans and polos or shorts and T’s, and I have many hoodies. I really don’t care about the clothes someone wears or anything else on the outside. Perhaps that’s why most of my characters are men.
My mother had one of the fox stoles. Looking back on it, I find it hard to believe. She was a poor missionary and had very little of value, and she never wore the stole because she never went anywhere fancy. I, like you, found the stole fascinating when I was a child–it was a bit gruesome.
Loved this post–I’m a beer and Doritos person rather than a wine and kale chips person. But would I rather read about characters who are rich or poor? Interesting question. I don’t care how much money they have as long as they have integrity, vulnerability, and a will to tackle their problem rather than float along letting things happen.
I do NOT understand kale chips. I mean, really??? Kale is a schmancy CABBAGE.
I would LOVE to see that fox stole at ACFW this year, Tamela! Maybe you could fit it into a character costume for Friday night? 🙂
My first thought of a fancy character was Kristin Billerbeck’s Ashley Stockingdale. She is fascinating to me because of her fascination with the name brands. (Well, the excellent characterization and the voice had a lot to do with it too!) I’m not fancy, so to get inside the head of someone with a lot of markers was a new experience for me. I love your thoughts, here. Thanks!
Meghan, I enjoyed Ashley Stockingdale too. Kristin’s references to the SF Bay were fun since that’s where I live.
Not only am I the only person I know who still wears a wind-up watch, but my 17-jewel Calvert wristwatch is older than I am, from the 1940s. That decades fascinates me, and I’ve decorated one guest room of our home in 1940s furniture and WW II memorabilia. Yes, I love modern gadgets, but I’m still fond of antiques.
Frodo Baggins also wore a special piece of jewelry. But in his case, all he wanted to do was to get rid of the thing! 😉
Tamela, you got my mind swirling this morning. I loved this post. Oh, and my mom had a fox stole just like the one you described that, as a girl, I used to put on when I wanted to feel elegant. 🙂
I’m reading a book now that has a unique character marker in what the character drives. I love it because it fits her personality. In my first book, the hero gave the heroine a charm bracelet on their wedding night that he adds to on each anniversary.
I’m definitely going to be thinking about markers for my new wip. Thanks for waking up my creative side!
This post got me thinking too…
Aside from my wedding rings there is a ring my husband got me for my birthday a few years ago that I wear most every Sunday and when we go out for a date. It has swirls and diamond chips and I even though hubby has gotten me other rings that I love that one is the one I love best. It will certainly be making an appearance at the ACFW banquet this year! 🙂
I think that you can portray a character’s wealth – or lack thereof – by where they live as much as what they wear or own. If you mention a character lives on Park Avenue while another lives in Hell’s Kitchen you immediately get the idea of their social status as well as what they might wear. I’m not saying you should stop with just a mention of where a character lives but that can be another descriptive option to employ.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Jen – Excellent point!
I once had a character, an actress, who was a compulsive liar. When someone complemented her emerald ring at a social event, she slipped it off and held it up to the person for better inspection. Dripping with emotion, she places it gently in her own other hand and say, “On the day my grandmother died, she said, ‘I want you to have this.'” The actress and her acquaintance share a tear. As soon as the actress is alone with her husband, he says, “But I gave you that ring.”
Ijust LOVE how this article came to life as I read it! Yes! drinking water in fancy, crystal goblets does make it seem “richer” in a sense.
Our eyes are drawn to the shiny, sparkly things of life, so why wouldn’t a reader be more enthralled by shiny, sparkly words to spice up a character’s life?
I love reading about characters who live worry free lives, but I also love reading how lesser fortunate, hard-working characters “fall” into a life of luxury.
I think the wealthy characters are a form of escape for readers who want to forget their own hardships in life and relish in the dream of becoming a character from their favorite book. I was drawn to Lori Wick’s books because of that.
Thanks for “spicing up” the power of words, Tamela! I really enjoyed reading this post!!
Loved your post, Tamela!
Anita Strawn de Ojeda
I loved the post! Fox stoles and coats always remind me of Grace Livingston Hill characters. In her stories the well-made item always represents a) genteel poverty, b) thrift of the main character c) the bounty of a carefully chosen gift from a good character. I didn’t realize until now how much Hill’s views on clothing has rubbed off on me over the years! I always look for well-made items (if it’s a brand name, that’s a plus) that are on sale/off season. I’d rather pay more for something classic than something flashy.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Anita, I’m often amazed by how much books influence readers, not only with their intentional messages with secondary ideas, too.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Sorry, should have said, “but” with secondary ideas, too.
In the novels I’ve written about Ruth, I use her wealth (or lack thereof) to chart the highs and lows of her life. I begin her story in the royal household of Moab. Not only is she surrounded by wealth, she is raised as a commodity. Half-way through the story her father marries her off to the son of a trader who will be expanding the king’s routes through his native land of Israel. Now Ruth is part of the upper middle class of Moab. Her husband shows his love to her by giving her rings every time he returns from the trade route. It’s a form of life insurance since he knows his job is risky. When he is assassinated, she uses that jewelry to pay for her and her mother-in-law’s passage to Israel.
Yes, Anita…Grace Livingston Hill. The power of owning one thing of quality instead of many things lacking quality.
Thanks, Tamela, for the idea of a character’s belongings demonstrating their character or their back story. Ideas flowing, now!
I am not posh, fancy or schmancy…I had a violent reaction to cashmere. I learned this the itchy way. I bought a beautiful cashmere sweater at a thrift store, for like, 8$. I got it home. I put it on. Within a minute, I moved like Houdini trying to get out of a straight jacket trying to get the thing off before I was completely covered in hives and welts. People, I was COVERED in hives. Please, somebody, give me a hairbrush!! AHHHH!
Signature fragrances? Amarige by Givenchy or Red Door, Elizabeh Arden. Jewelry, wedding ring, triple banded silver ring from Bolivia and an opal ring from New Mexico.
I dressed one of my wealthy characters in dupioni silk, my favourite kind of silk. I gave another character a Karmann Ghia.
Memorable character marker? Hmmmm. I don’t know about a favourite, but I just finished a book in which the heroine expounds on the values of Earl Grey tea. Mine comes in an IV.
It’s a little known fact, but yes, some bottled water is actually tap water. Great Value bottled water from Walmart used to be from the Little Rock Municipal Water Supply. No idea if it still is, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Ozarka water is also tap water.
I don’t know if my emerald ring is a signature piece, but I’ve been wearing it over a decade and rarely take it off. My dad has excellent taste in jewelry and knows exactly what kind of stuff each of his girls like. He picked it out for me in Mexico when my parents went on a cruise. It’s SO me! I also have a heart shaped pendant with a silver dolphin and a rose gold dolphin in the center that I wear all the time. Bought it on a cruise ship.
One of my early childhood memories was sitting next to my mom in church and fingering the mink collar on her coat. We were very middle class, but every Sunday I felt “Fancy Schmancy”.
Several years later when my mom was going through her closet she was about to toss out the old coat, but I asked for the collar and gave it to my then 5 year old who wore it everywhere. People would ask me as she waltzed next to the shopping cart, if she was wearing a fur collar, “No!,” she replied, “This is a mink stole!” An on her little petite frame that is what it looked like.
A few years ago my aunt gave me something from her closet. It is a tan 3/4 length wool blend coat with thick melamine buttons and a wide mink collar. I wear it several times a year , not as a costume, but because I love it! My aunt said I was the only one in the family she could imagine actually wearing it.
I think that we add depth to characters when we allow them to wear something that resonates with their personality, even if it feels fancy schmancy, because that is real life. The other thing worth noting is not only how I feel when I wear the coat, but other peoples response to me when I wear it. It is like they just had someone from Mayberry step into their fast paced world and it makes them smile, tip their hat and remember a moment from their past..perhaps when they sat next to their moms in church and fingered her best Sunday coat.
Thanks for the fun post,
Tamela Hancock Murray
Marci, I always loved when my mother dressed in her Sunday best, too!
Tamela Hancock Murray
Still do love to see her dressed up, as a matter of fact! 🙂
Marci, I think you should use this memory in a story. 🙂
Laurie Alice Eakes
Great post. Sometimes I think I put in these markers without realizing I’m doing it until later. The heroine who wears high heels because she’s short. OK, plain, a little boring, and then one looks at her background and realizes that the heels are a symbol, as elevating herself is what she’s all about.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Laurie Alice — Awesome symbolism!
Patti Jo Moore
Enjoyed this post, Tamela. 🙂 How special you have those fur pieces from your grandmothers. I wear a ring that belonged to my Mama, so not only is it a beautiful ring–it’s a very special reminder of her.
Definitely important to not go with the obvious. That makes a more well rounded and complex character. Someone you want to get to know.
I loved this post. I started thinking of my characters and what made them different or special. One lives in the city but has the truck and boots of country life. Another loves soft peppermints, and first her father then her boyfriend buys them for her. But this is one step further and richer. It will help me create more unique and interesting people for my manuscript. Thank you!
Tamela Hancock Murray
Linda, I really like that. Anyone can buy peppermints!
Carole Lehr Johnson
Tamela, thank you for an interesting post … lots of food for thought! I am mentally ‘dressing’ a character in my current manuscript.