Working With Objects to Create Emotion in Characters

Emotional talismans in fiction are objects imbued with emotion. Learn the importance of triggering feelings and memories in characters and eliciting an emotional response in readers through the use of objects.
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The minute a child is born he begins acquiring things. The tag slipped on his wrist in the hospital. The little knit cap to keep his head warm. He goes home wrapped in a soft blanket. Once there the accumulation of things continues—a silver, plastic, or homemade rattle. A mobile over the bed perhaps, or a paper snowflake cut out by his mother. A cup with his name etched on it, or a plastic one purchased at a dollar store with stenciled letters that will chip away with time and multiple washings.

This guest post is by Nancy Peacock. Peacock is the author of the novels Life Without Water (chosen as a New York Times Notable Book), and Home Across the Road, as well as the memoir and writing-in-the-real-world guide A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning and Life. She teaches writing in her studio in Orange County, North Carolina. Her third novel, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson, released in January 2017, was published by Atria Press.

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Our possessions—from the beginning of our lives to the end—say a lot about our station in life, our personalities, and what we value compared to what we say we value. This, of course, is true for your characters, too. A character with a pound of hamburger and a jar of pickles in his refrigerator is going to be very different from one with a package of tofu and a jar of sprouts. A character with one pair of sneakers will have different values (and most likely a different set of problems) than one with a closet filled with Jimmy Choo heels.

But what of the possession a character has kept since childhood? Or the possession that belongs to a missing person in the story? Or a possession passed down from generation to generation, complete with family mythology? What of a talisman?

My dictionary defines a talisman as an object, usually a stone or a ring, thought to have magical powers. Not every novelist is working in a genre that can support magical rings and dragons and castles and caves, but you can still use the power of a talisman to give your character depth and to advance the plot—and it does not have to be something magical, unless you call making your reader emote magical.

How does a talisman apply to literary fiction, historical fiction, romance, or any other genre?

It’s simple. Endow an object with emotion.

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I began working with emotional talismans in my fiction without even knowing I was doing so. In my first novel Life Without Water, the narrator’s mother, Sara, wears a necklace made of an empty bullet shell. The bullet necklace was made by Sara’s brother before he died in the Vietnam War. She was anti-war at the time, and intended to return it, but upon hearing the news of her brother’s death she ties the leather cord around her neck and wears it daily, removing it only at night before going to bed.

The loss of Sara’s brother is the driving emotional force of the plot, and the bullet takes on the meaning of that loss. It becomes not just Sara and her daughter Cedar’s loss, but also the loss of that generation, the loss of the war, and the loss of so many lives—both to the war and to the counter culture.

Similar depth of emotion and history is carried in a pair of stolen abalone earrings passed from generation to generation in my second novel, Home Across the Road. The earrings are infused with myth and story that keep the family that owns them thriving despite the obstacles. Again, the talisman here takes on greater historical meaning.

But it wasn’t until my third novel, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson, that a member of my writers group said to me, “You always work with talismans.” Until that moment I honestly hadn’t realized that this was something I innately did in fiction.

In The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson the talisman appears at the one-third mark, and is a button Persy finds that once belonged to his lover Chloe. He finds the button on the floor of the plantation house where they were both enslaved, and he carries it with him through the Civil War, through his search for Chloe in Texas, and through his capture by and assimilation into a band of Comanche Indians. The button appears again and again as Persy touches it and remembers Chloe, or longs for her, or feels guilty over his inability to keep her safe.

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In movies we often see objects endowed with emotion. Picture a funeral scene: The family gathers around the grave, the casket lowered into the ground. Picture the camera cutting to the widow spinning a rock in her fingers, a smooth stone her husband picked up on the beach and gave to her on their last vacation. That stone was endowed with emotion before the husband died, and is endowed with even more now. Every time the camera cuts to it we feel something, whether we see it on her dresser, or see her carrying it in her pocket. Perhaps the final scene is the widow finally putting the stone in a drawer and closing it, and we know she is ready to move on, but will not forget the love they shared. Or perhaps the movie is about her recovered memories of her husband’s brutality, and in the final scene, when we see her tossing the stone out the window of a moving car, we know that she is ready to move on, and will not be mistreated again.

Emotional manipulation is the name of the game when it comes to storytelling, and the possibilities are endless. As a fiction writer, your job is to manipulate your readers’ emotions to the best of your ability, and to do this without him or her noticing. You have the advantage in that the reader wants this, just as the moviegoer wants it. We want stories that move us.

What endowed object might your character own? What thing does she own—among all her possessions—that stands out? What is imbued with history, or loss, or love, or desire?

You can find this object and bring it into the story again and again, so that it really does take on magical influence. And that magic comes from just little marks on the page, yet this something has the power to move your reader.

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