Wednesday, May 6, 2020


Characters and their Objects 

In a recent interview with New York Times, best-selling author Gail Carriger said that because of her background in archaeology, she sees objects “as very representative of culture and personality. So a lot of my characters have a signature gadget that represents them.”

It’s an intriguing bit of shorthand, isn’t it? Carriger, author of The Parasol Protectorate, says, “My [heroine carries] a Swiss Army kind of battle-parasol with all these secret devices in it.”

When I think of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire, I immediately see him in a cowboy hat. That object connects him to law enforcement, to the Old West and the New West as well.

When I envision Aimee Leduc in Cara Black’s series, she’s on her moped, which gives her the freedom to explore every arrondisement in Paris.

That made me wonder if my characters have an object that represents each one of them.

The first book I published was Mahu, about a Honolulu homicide detective who gets forced out of the closet while investigating a dangerous case. It’s easy for me to associate him with an object—it’s his surfboard.

Very early in the book, he goes surfing and I make explicit the connection between him and surfing, and how it connects to him as a police detective as well.

“I am renewed, reborn and revitalized every time I step into the salty water. With my board under me, balanced on a wave, surrounded by sea spray and blue skies, I am finally complete. It’s a moment of rare transcendence for me, a chance to rise up out of the scum and bitterness and shame I find on the streets. It’s the only way I can keep being a cop.”

Steve Levitan, the protagonist of my golden retriever mysteries, has an important object in his life as well—the hidden laptop he keeps his hacking software on. It’s secreted away in the attic of his townhouse, so that he has to be very intentional about using it. It represents his downfall—he spent a year as a guest of the California penal system for hacking. But it’s also a tool that he uses to find clues, solve cases and bring justice.

For Liam McCullough, one of the two co-protagonists of my Have Body, Will Guard series, it’s not an object so much as a habit. When he was a U.S. Navy SEAL, he learned to swim with the combat stroke, “a mix of sidestroke, freestyle and breaststroke. The Combat Sidestroke allows the swimmer to swim more efficiently and reduces the body's profile in the water in order to be less visible during combat operations when surface swimming is required.”

This habit characterizes his need to remain a warrior, to protect those around him. And he’s a bit vain about his well-muscled body, so this exercise helps him stay in shape as well. What other characters have an object that defines them? Mary Poppins and her umbrella, Sherlock Holmes and his deerstalker cap, Miss Marple and her knitting needles?

And how about you writers out there? Do the characters you write about have one, and what purpose does it serve?


Neil Plakcy’s newest release in the Golden Retriever Mystery series is A Litter of Goldens, a collection of short mystery stories in which Steve and Rochester dig up clues and drag criminals to justice. The tenth full-length novel in the series, Dog’s Green Earth, recently debuted in audiobook format. Neil’s website is


Neil Plakcy said...

I want to hear from other authors whose characters have an object that defines them.

Terry said...

I'll join. Like Walt Longmire, Samuel Craddock has a hat...but it doesn't define him as a lawman. It defines him as someone who likes his clothing "broken in." The women in Samuel's life don't like the hat. They often give it disapproving looks when he sets it down. But he is unmoved by their judgement.

Anonymous said...

Though Holmes is so identified with the deerstalker (and Inverness and long curly pipe), none of these actually show up that often in the stories or the original illustrations. Then again, neither do Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty, and that doesn't stop anybody. And that is how it will be; it's what people expect, so let'm have it (them).

PlumGaga said...

Ivan Doig, author of The Whistling Season, said each of his characters had to have "a name, a nose, and a noise."

Lesley A Diehl said...

Eve Appel always wears stiletto heels which she sometimes uses as a weapon.

CarolCrigger said...

China Bohannon, with her dog and her hat pin.

Mary Reed said...

Eric and I write a mystery series about John, Lord Chamberlain to
Emperor Justinian. An important object to John is the cracked clay
wine cup he drinks from in private while contemplating whatever crime
he is trying to solve. John's elderly, Christian servant Peter wonders
why a man of wealth and power would use "...a thing so time worn?
Sometimes it seemed to Peter that John was like one of those holy
hermits who denounce every worldly pleasure. Except, of course, that
John was a pagan."

Aside from representing the ironies in John's character the cup has
added significance to him. In One for Sorrow, when he and his lover
Cornelia are unexpectedly reunited after decades apart, he explains
that he had it made specially, to remind him of the cup her lips had
touched when they were young. John may seem like a cold, self-
contained man but in reality he is simply a man who prefers to keep
his sentiments and sorrows to himself.