The Things We Carry: The Weight of Objects in Fiction

When I was in high school, I was unrelentingly skeptical of symbolism. Did it really matter that Crazy Jane’s wallpaper was yellow instead of any other color? Or that Gatsby wore pink shirts? These days, I’m a little more in tune with the significance in the details, though I still don’t go out of my way to dig up symbolism. 

But what I do look for are important objects—little things that may be innocuous in everyday situations, but that carry enormous weight within the story. Think about the conch shell in Lord of the Flies, or Desdemona’s handkerchief in Othello. These are mundane objects that wind up having huge significance—life and death huge—for the characters that interact with them.

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(One could argue that charged items like these are, in fact, symbols, and that’s fine. The distinction I’m making, though, is that their ramifications are real and tangible and move the plot forward, rather than simply, maybe, adding a layer of meaning to the prose. Jay would’ve loved Daisy no matter what color shirt he had on, you know?)

Think about your own story. Are there any items in your fictional world that are so charged, so laden with meaning, that they’re impacting the environment and/or the characters’ behavior? If so, I’d love to hear about them. If not, try out this exercise to start thinking about how objects can be influential to your story:

Identify your main character’s most prized possession. It doesn’t have to be ornate or expensive—it just needs to be significant to to the character. What is it? Where does it come from? What does it mean to the protagonist? Why? 

Now, write a scene in which that object gets lost, stolen, or broken. What happens?