Bewitched by the Things She Carries by John Ravenscroft – Fiction Columnist

Don’t tell my wife, but I seem to be falling in love.

It’s this character of mine, Fae – the one I showed you dancing in that cloud-covered Cornish field last month. Like my protagonist, Peter, I just can’t get her out of my head. (You know, it’s impossible to think, speak or write that line these days without hearing Kylie Minogue – and somehow Kylie Minogue always reminds me of Elizabeth Montgomery. Which opens the door to an ancient memory…)

When I was a kid I used to love Bewitched, that old American sit-com about a suburban married couple called Samantha and Darrin Stephens. Sam (the Elizabeth Montgomery character) was a pretty, blonde, middle-class housewife. Very ordinary, very average – except for the fact that she wasn’t just a housewife: she also happened to be a witch. All she had to do was twitch her nose and magic would happen (accompanied by the sound of someone going quietly berserk on a xylophone).

Sam Stephens could bewitch people.

Well, she’s not the only one. My astrologer character Fae can do the same thing. She’s bewitched me, all right – primarily because, in my writerly efforts to get to know her better, I dared to sneak a peek into her handbag.

Perhaps I should explain.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short story – The Things You Left Behind – and submitted it to The Orange/Labyrinth Short Story Competition. (At the start of this month I was delighted to discover that it’s been chosen as one of the prizewinners. If you stumble over a trumpet, pick it up and blow it as hard as you can – that’s my motto.)

The Things You left Behind was inspired, at least in part, by a Tim O’Brian story called The Things They Carried, which is a wonderful example of how characters can be defined with minimal exposition. O’Brian’s story follows a platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam, developing the various personalities via the unusual technique of listing the objects they carry with them: maps, a radio, a comic book, a bible, a thumb cut from an enemy corpse… My own ‘object’ story is about a guy collecting and measuring the things his dead wife left behind: her keys, a yellow Post-It note, a toenail clipping, two of her pubic hairs…

Anyway, back in the novel-character-creation-lab (more power, Igor) I was having trouble with the lovely Fae. She wasn’t coming to life for me – not as vividly as I’d hoped – and that’s a pretty big problem, in my opinion. It seems to me that before you can begin to bring your characters to life on the page, they must be alive in your head. So I’d been asking myself all the standard questions writers ask of their characters. Who is she? Where did she grow up? What does she eat for breakfast? What TV shows does she like? What is she afraid of? What does she long for that she’d never admit to? All that kind of stuff.

It was helping, but I felt I still needed more.

One evening last week, as I was thinking about Fae, thinking about the O’Brian story, thinking about The Things You Left Behind and reading a piece on Characterization by Susan Perabo, I chanced upon a method of character-exploration that – for me, at least – works wonders. You might call it Construction from Possessions.

Here’s what you do.

Picture the objects your character(s) might carry with them. Imagine the contents of their suitcase, their backpack, their briefcase, their handbag. Make a list.

This is the list I came up with for Fae: all the stuff I imagined her having stashed away in her (admittedly rather roomy) handbag:


  • A pendant with a broken chain.
  • A couple of condoms
  • A small, battered volume of the poems of William Blake
  • A cheap cigarette lighter
  • Some cannabis in a twist of silver foil
  • A much-thumbed photograph of a baby
  • An old threepenny bit – her lucky coin
  • Keys
  • A beaded purse containing a five pound note and some change
  • A mobile phone that doesn’t work
  • An expensive fountain pen
  • A small note-pad, almost completely filled with notes
  • A bottle of patchouli perfume
  • Tissues
  • A spare pair of knickers
  • An astrological chart
  • A puncture repair kit

Now, I already knew she’d be lugging some of these items around with her – Fae likes sex , poetry, horoscopes, hence the condoms and the Blake and the astrological chart – but others came as a surprise. For example, I didn’t know she was going to have that baby picture on her until I ‘saw’ it in her bag.

Whose baby is it? Hers? Is it dead? Did she have it adopted? What’s the story behind that picture?

How are those other items connected? What does she write in her note-pad with that expensive fountain pen? And the pen itself – was it a gift? If so, who gave it to her? And why the hell does she have a puncture repair kit in her bag?

Not all of these objects will show up in the novel, but in the process of weaving them together – and more importantly weaving together the stories that lie behind them – I’m hoping to end up with a richer, more complex, more believable human being. And that’s what writing good fiction is all about – the creation of convincing, complex human beings out of nothing more than words on paper.

I love it. And the more I do it, the more I love it.

You know, the truth is I’m not just bewitched by pretty, elegant, dancing Fae. I think I’m fast becoming bewitched by the act of writing itself.

(Next month – Fae and Peter get hot and sweaty! Writing Sex Scenes…)

Copyright John Ravenscroft – 2002

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