How selective use of objects can enhance a fantasy (or non-fantasy) novel
Sources: The Night Circus (fantasy) by Erin Morgenstern, Mutant Message From Down Under (nonfiction/ travel) by Marlo Morgan, Into the Wild (nonfiction/ travel) by Jon Krakauer, Warriors: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (reference) by R. G. Grant, Mistborn (fantasy) by Brandon Sanderson
A Treasure Box
"The finished clock is resplendent. At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and silver pendulum. [...] But that is before it is wound. [...] First the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side. [...] At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler."
--Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
When I was a kid, I had an old photo box stuffed with my own personal treasures. I thought that if the house ever caught on fire, I could take the box and run out the front door; therefore, I chose with great care the objects that would represent my past.
Stumbling upon my treasure box in the shed some years later, I was sort of amazed by the paraphernalia that made the final cut. Some things made sense, like my oldest hand-written diary entries and the gold musical locket my grandma gave me. Then there was a mini photo album of my best friend and I picking kumquats, a half of a heart made of masking tape, and a random sticker of teddy bear ballerinas. As I picked each one up, I felt a sentimental squeeze in my heart. Whether or not I understood the meaning, these were my treasures.
As humans, we love objects and invest a good deal of feeling into them. So when you write a book, objects take on a significant role. They can personify a character or act as a symbol of a relationship. They can move the plot along. They can represent an entire culture.
But never forget that sometimes we like objects just because we like them. An interesting object lovingly described can hold your reader's attention as well as any fight scene or moment of poignant drama. And in fantasy, where nothing is limited by real rules, enchanted objects trigger the imagination and send your reader floating into new realms.
Choose It, Use It, Lose It
"A young woman came to me holding a plate full of rocks. [...] Ooota at me very seriously and said, 'Choose a rock. Choose it wisely. It has the power to save your life.' "
--Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message from Down Under
Writing fantasy can be like going on a shopping spree. You can pick out anything you like and fill whole rooms with treasures. Dragon hoards. Castles. Bazaars. Museums. The power of these places come from the sheer delight in so many objects to look at, smell, and hold. By all means, go a little crazy.
Just remember that very few of these objects will actually amount to very much value. As a writer, you must choose only a few prominent items for each of your characters to use within the confines of the story.
Notice I say you get to choose--not necessarily the character. After all, the character might be exiled from the village with little more than the clothes on his back and a few oddities in his pockets. It's up to the writer to decide what clothes and what oddities he has. Likewise, the character might stumble upon useful items in the woods. For him, it's a matter of luck. For the writer, it's a carefully planted plot twist.
What the character does get a say in is how he utilizes the objects he has. As a rule of thumb, the more creative, inventive, and resourceful he can be, the more interesting the character will be. That's why imposing limits can be a good thing. If he, for example, has only a string and a bent nail in his pocket, can he make a fishing line? Can he use his cap to gather berries? Can he collect rainwater using his wooden shoe?
It's always fun to see things used in different ways than intended. The same goes with magic items. Can they be used in two, three, four, five different ways. Can they be combined with other objects to make something entirely new?
Maybe your character will start off unfamiliar with the objects on which he pins his survival, but ultimately, he should gain mastery of his tools. Once he does, you can make things interesting by taking his objects away.
Sometimes a characters will lose the items they're familiar with. Sometimes magical wands break. Sometimes quantities of healing potion are depleted. Sometimes bad guys steal the mystical sword of awesome. Sometimes the all-knowing compass leads you in the wrong direction. Sometimes you accidentally leave your book of spells on the train.
The point is, you can never fully 100% rely on objects, either to be with you when you need them or to do the job like they're supposed. And that's a good thing. Because characters are more than the things they have. Start taking away their objects and their true nature comes out. Can they adapt in time? Can they fix what's broken? Will they keep their cool or panic?
Now, I don't mean you have to send your hero naked and unarmed against the monster of doom. You need tools to get the job done. That's fine. But taking them away is a great way to create conflict and keep the readers in suspense.
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In junior high, while studying voyages to the new world, my history teacher asked us to write an essay on the following question: If you were going on an overseas voyage and could only pick three objects, what would they be? (Mine would be a fat journal and pen--that counts as one--letters from my family and friends and a book--probably Ender's Games, if I could just choose one.)
Apply this to your characters. If they had to leave home forever and could only pick three things to take with them, what would they be? Would they choose them for practical purpose? For comfort? For sentimental reasons? For psychological necessity? Now, will you, as the author, actually let them have these things? If not, how does it affect your character? Do they try to replace these things with other comforts?
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Objects in Survival
"Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior [...]. Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only a .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals[...]. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station."
--Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
By and large, most of the objects you come across in everyday life are exceedingly practical. We put very little value in the stapler or the potato peeler until we lose it or it breaks. Then we huff out a sigh and buy a new one. It's the same thing for writing a book. We don't realize what the character need until suddenly they need it. Then, with a growl of frustration, we re-write the last few pages to mention the item we forgot.
All that's fine if your character is sitting in the midst of civilization and can easily get a hold of anything he needs. But fantasy stories are not exactly known for their sedentary natures. Characters go on adventures, tramp through the wilds, and find themselves in new and strange objects. They might not be able to page through their junk drawer or go to the 99 cents store. They'd better have the items they need at the start.
In which case the story becomes a little like planning a camping trip or traveling overseas. You'd better make sure the character has everything he needs to start with.
But what kinds of things do they need to survive? Fantasy stories may take place in modern times, but they might also take place in older times, in which case you aren't going to have access to modern technologies like matches and plastic. Even if you do have those technologies, how many of us actually know what objects we need to survive and how to use them?
- Food, Means of Getting Food, Means of Preparing Food (jerky, biscuits, salt, herbs, pots and pans, knife, utensils, fishing gear, basket/ bag for gathering wild fruits and vegetables)
- Canteens and Water Purification Method (pot for boiling water, tea leaves, coffee, alcohol)
- Clothing (boots, cloak, hat, gloves, armor)
- Hygiene (soap, shaving kit, brush, toothbrush)
- Medicine (bandages, disinfectants, insect repellant)
- Map/ Compass
- Light/ Heat (candles, lantern, flint/ matches, oil)
- Shelter (tent, blanket)
- Weapon, for food and protection, and Means of Maintaining Weapon
- Personal/ Psychological Objects (journal, religious text, letters from home, games, musical instruments )
- Other (sewing kit, rope, axe,)
- Means of Holding Objects (knapsack, backpack, saddle bag, belt)
I, personally, like to steal from history. (Note my interest in A Soldier's Pack in my Civil War blogs.) I grew up on the Oregon Trail and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Half the time, I just think back to all that pioneering goodness and steal objects willy-nilly.
Lately, I've been interested in looking at soldiers, who have to pack light. Some sections of R. G. Grant's Warriors: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (a DK book) show what soldiers throughout history traveled with while on campaign. For example, an American rifleman fighting in the Revolutionary War would carry with him:
- a pewter mug
- a wooden food bowl
- a salt horn
- a bone-handled fork
- a wooden spoon
- a tin cup, which could be used for cooking as well as drinking
- a swiggler (a tiny wooden barrel for spirits)
- a white canvas bag to carry it all in
The amount of research you decide to do, is up to you. But having at least some idea of how people survive does add elements of realism to a story.
The more objects your character has to haul around, the heavier his pack becomes, the less able he is to fight and the slower the trip. So you need to figure out ways of carrying the supplies (via horses or some other beast of burden) or keeping the amount of items on his person to a minimum. Towns, inns, farms, and other pockets of civilization are useful, because here your character can re-supply. If he's less scrupulous, he can steal.
If your character has intimate knowledge of the terrain and it happens to be summer/ early fall, he can simply live off the land. Or a large party of travelers can share the supplies--one person brings the cooking pot and knives, another one holds the medicine, a third carries the map and books, etc.
Of course, you can always use magic to cheat, but I'll get to that later.
Thus far, I've assumed your character is going off into the woods to survive. But maybe he's not--maybe the whole story takes place in the city.
Here you have access to whatever you want, depending on the resources of the civilization or the wealth of the character. Even a poor person, begging or going through the garbage, can usually find food, clothes, and various broken objects.
Survival objects will most likely be tools of the trade. A peasant will have his plough and sickle. A tailor will have needles and threads. A warrior will have his weapons and armor. And so on and so forth.
Even those ply magic may have perfectly ordinary objects they use in their trade. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, for example, certain individuals are able to "push" metal objects of lesser weight than themselves; they carry around ordinary coins and send them spraying like bullets. More generically, fortune-tellers have their tarot decks and crystal balls, while potion-makers have their cauldrons and bottles. Mixing magic and non-magic objects can be perfectly charming and fun.
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Ever heard of "For Want of a Nail..." ? It goes like this:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
You can try your own "For Want of a Nail" and imagine how your character loses a single item and how it leads to a disaster. Or, inversely, you can have your character gain one small item and imagine how that leads to something wonderful.
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And that's all the time we have for this week. Stay tuned next week for the continuation: "Objects in Identity" and "Magical Objects."