Posted On February 17, 2017 by Print This Post

The Keepsake Method of Creating Characters by Jennifer Tanner

For almost two years, I’ve been living in a construction zone. I spend my days dealing with contractors, moving stuff from room to room, and throwing stuff away. Throughout the process, I thought a lot about my time in college, when I could fit all of my worldly possessions in my car. I’m living proof that we spend the first half of our lives acquiring things and the second half getting rid of them. As I unearthed boxes that hadn’t been opened in decades, I found things like dog tags that belonged to my one and only dog, who’d gone to doggie heaven in the eighties, old Blue Book exams, a bracelet from a visit to Disneyland when I was four, tons of matchbooks (remember when restaurants used to give out matches?), and several boxes of old letters.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing. My writing, for the most part, has taken a holiday during the renovation, but writing still occupies a large swath of my cranial landscape. If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing and feeling guilty for not finding the time to write. And like most writers, some of my experiences find their way into a story. Last week, I took a short break from renovation-related tasks and skimmed through my manuscripts. I realized all of the main characters I’ve created have kept ‘things’, like old photos, letters, tchotkes, and trinkets. They’re all keepsakes from their past. They serve as tools, which speak to a character’s past and help me develop insight into the character.

Still with me? Now, I’m going to bore you with some examples:

Happy Birthday to a Special Girl, the card read. Juliet ran a finger over the last remnants of the glitter stuck on the card. A smiling Winnie-the-Pooh held a cake with ten red candles. She slid the card back in its tattered envelope along with the cheap gold locket that hung on a tangled chain. Twenty birthdays had passed since Lynette walked out of the house on Otis Street. Although the notion her mother would remember to send her a birthday card after all this time was absurd, the passing years hadn’t smothered the hope.

  • So, Juliet keeps an old birthday card her mother gave her, which provides a hint of backstory. The card is a reminder of a devastating loss, a symbol of hope, and much more. For instance, how does her mother’s abandonment affect Juliet’s relationships, her belief system, and her view of the world? Juliet was one of my favorite characters to write. It would have been too easy to make her a victim of her circumstances, so I created a character who was wiser than her years, cynical at times (a defense mechanism), but always compassionate.

Gray lowered himself onto the faded lounge chair that had seen better days poolside. Casey dressed as if she shopped from the lost and found bin at a coin laundry, so the lack of real furniture in her tiny living room was no surprise. He picked up a worn leather bound book from the rusted metal ice chest that served as a coffee table. Les Miserables—written in French. She speaks French? The Casey he knew was fluent in sarcasm. His gaze turned to a heavily tarnished tennis trophy cup stuffed with an assortment of pens and loose change. Holding it up to the light, he peered at the elaborate engraving. Cassandra Leigh Marchand – First Place Women’s Singles – Ardenwood Country Club. He’d played golf at Ardenwood, a private club with initiation fees that exceeded the cost of a degree from Yale. Something about her story wasn’t right.

  • While this scene is in Gray’s POV, it provides a glimpse into Casey’s past and what I refer to as the ‘huh? moment’. The book and the trophy are inconsistent with Casey’s present lifestyle. This discovery plants a seed of doubt in Gray’s mind. Why hasn’t she been more forthcoming about her past? What is she hiding? Doesn’t she trust him and can he trust her? When I finished this scene, I realized Gray’s new revelations about Casey opened up different aspects of their relationship that I hadn’t thought of before and were worth exploring.

The phone call today changed everything. Chase rummaged through the safe, tossing aside stacks of cash and stock certificates before pulling out the small photo album. Hands shaking, he flipped it open and was greeted with a snapshot of his father clutching a six-pack of Bud. It must have been payday. He turned the page to a photo of himself straddling his ancient Indian Chief. He loved that bike, but his need to provide for Annie won out. He forced himself to look at the next photo. Annie in a pale blue sundress, her dark brown hair curling at her shoulders. So damn pretty. Her smile still took his breath away. The last page held his gold wedding band. He’d been too ashamed to tell Annie he’d bought their rings at a pawn shop. She deserved better.

  • This is a ‘20/20 hindsight’ scene where the character reflects on his past. I always write pages (and pages) of character sketches before I start the story. I was having problems with Chase’s character so, I banged out this scene with the photo album to help me flesh out his character and come up with a plausible GMC. For Chase, the wedding band and pictures serve two purposes: they’re a reminder of what could have been if he and Annie had stayed together and a symbol of his heartbreak and failure. I asked myself the following questions. Why does he keep these things? Because he still had feelings for her? Or did he keep these mementos as a reminder of something he had to overcome?

Using keepsakes is one of my methods of creating characters. I usually end up with more backstory on my characters than I can use in a story, but it’s worth the effort.

Are you a sentimental packrat? Do you include mementos from your character’s past in your stories?

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20 Responses to “The Keepsake Method of Creating Characters by Jennifer Tanner”

  1. This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I was struggling with one of my main characters, and this kind of detail can likely fix my problem. When I’m writing, I include character interactions with their surroundings, but I needed the reminder that they can actually seek out hidden objects–things they’ve treasured and saved–to develop their backstory and influence their character arc. Thanks! Great post.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | February 17, 2017, 8:30 am
    • Hi Staci,

      Creating characters is one of my favorite things and although most of the details won’t make it into the story, knowing my character helps me write with more authority.

      Your mention of a character’s interactions with their surroundings is a great way to add depth to a character. Years ago, I helped a friend clear out her late aunt’s house. I didn’t know her aunt, but her spartan furnishings, old appliances, and the embroidered bible verses hanging on the wall told me she’d led an austere and religious life. When we began cleaning out the little things an unexpected picture emerged. We found love notes she and her husband left for each other all over the house. This revealed another side of her that no one knew about. The same applies for the characters we create.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 17, 2017, 2:03 pm
  2. Morning Jennifer!

    Great post! I myself am a packrat, although moving twice in a year had eliminated a bunch of that. But the little decorations I have placed here and there that I didn’t get rid of? Yes, all of my characters have those as well….a coin in a wallet that came from an arcade, a photo on a shelf with a still-broken frame, things like that.

    Great reminder to add them to our characters to make them even more believable.

    Love your excerpts and glad you found a moment to write this post amongst all the renovations!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | February 17, 2017, 9:05 am
    • Hola Carrie Cae!

      I’m chuckling over your coin that came from an arcade because I know I have a plastic ring somewhere that came out of a gum ball machine from a guy I dated. Over the past two years, I’ve realized that I don’t need to keep everything to hold onto the memories.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 17, 2017, 4:27 pm
  3. This post came at a time I was really struggling to come up with some character development for my characters in my new book. I never thought of this. What a great idea!

    When I was a kid and I was dreaming about characters and writing – this all happened about the time when the very first Star Wars movie came out. I made up a different ending and called it a romance.

    The reason this post brings back memories is because I wrote a letter which was going to be keepsake of the heroine. I hadn’t thought about that in years.


    Posted by Janice Hampton | February 17, 2017, 10:59 am
    • Hi Janice,

      Everyone struggles with character development. My character sketches are my bible because I’ve scribbled bits of dialogue, zinger lines, and mini-scenes for each character. I like your idea of the heroine’s letter. You can get a lot of mileage from it.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 17, 2017, 4:37 pm
  4. Jenn – What a fabulous post!

    I’m a packrat but – and it’s a BIG but – my mom was a world-class packrat, while I’m only junior league. My mom inherited her hoarding tendencies from my grandmother.

    When my grandparents moved back to the town where my grandmother grew up after 44 years in the same house, the whole family helped with the clearout. The treasure trove – I guess you could call it that – was in the air raid shelter in the basement. That small room included boxes of Jell-O and other non-perishables, vintage tampons which could only have belonged to my teenaged mom, huge balls of string, rubber bands and aluminum foil, remnants of the Depression-era.

    When my parents downsized from a huge Victorian-style house on one-acre to a small 2-bedroom house on a very small lot, my book, photo and postcard collections doubled. Books have always been my weakness, and even though I gave away six bookcases and almost 2,000 books when we moved to Chicago five years ago, I’ve had to squeeze in a few more small bookcases for my latest acquisitions.

    We’ve moved pretty often in the course of our married years, and with every move we had a big clearout, but also accumulated treasures from our new location(s). We lived in our Cincinnati house almost 20 years, during which time we pretty well filled a two-car garage and a full basement with keepsakes. It was painful to throw out kindergarten papers dating back thirty years or more, not to mention weeding through every report card my kids ever received. I did hang on to some things, but I did break down and toss some of my old birthday and Valentine cards, dating back decades.

    Anyway – you get the idea. I LOVE the idea of using keepsakes to help define characters, and I’m itching to read more of Jenn’s stories once the renovations are completed.

    In the meantime, I have four or five bins of vintage goodies I should probably go through one of these days. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 17, 2017, 1:36 pm
    • Hi Becke,

      Uh, I actually have proof that you and your mother are packrats because somehow, things from both of your houses found their way to my doorstep. I gave away over 500 books last year, and I’m not done yet. I’m afraid to open the garage.

      I’ve discovered things about myself during the renovation. I’ve given a lot of stuff away, but I realized the stuff I keep has some meaning, whether it’s a memory or a story on how I ended up with it.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 17, 2017, 5:00 pm
      • I realized when I get in gung-ho clearout mode, I sometimes give away things I regret later. For some reason I gave away a lot of serving dishes and have no been gradually rebuilding my supply. My daughter shares this tendency – she has hundreds of books from her childhood (and I have even more), as well as dolls, games and toys she loved as a child. Even with all the things she kept, there are still things she regrets giving away.

        One of the things I must have given away or lost many years ago are the first stories I wrote, I vaguely remember them, and of course they were awful, but I’d still like to have them.

        My mom was convinced when we moved in 1970/71 that we left boxes of photos and papers in the crawlspace under the house. I don’t remember seeing any boxes in the crawlspace, but I didn’t check into it more than once or twice. There are old pictures I remember that didn’t turn up when we cleared out my parents’ house, so maybe we did lose some along the way.

        The things I’ve saved all have special meaning to me, but probably not to other people. My husband thinks I’m nuts to save pretty much every card and letter I’ve ever received, but he can’t complain – he still has journals he wrote as a school boy. I’m really glad he saved those – they’re fascinating!

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 17, 2017, 8:49 pm
        • Huh. If I were you, I’d go back to that house from the 70s and ask if the current owners found anything in the crawlspace. Maybe the photos are still there? Gee, this could be a great premise for a story. You return to the house find the box of photos and…

          I have a lot of old toys and Barbie dolls from my childhood. I still have all of my Dr. Seuss and Scholastic Book Club books, too. Ker-Plunk! Easy Z Bake oven. The Mouse Trap game. I’m too embarrassed to go on.

          I finally forced myself to toss old birthday cards and some letters. A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to go through two big boxes of old cards and photos that belong to my aunt. There had to be ten pounds of birthday and holiday cards, and they were all from 1995-96.

          Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 17, 2017, 9:50 pm
          • That would be a cool premise for a story, and actually WAS an important story in my real life. My grandmother grew up in the tiny town of Adams, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. After she got married, she moved to the Midwest, but she used to go back to Adams for her high school reunions, even when she was in her 60s and 70s. My uncle went with her on one of those trips and they stopped by to see the house she had grown up in. They knocked on the door and the owner invited them in – she said she had some boxes of books and pictures from my grandmother’s childhood she’d found in the basement. My uncle was very taken with the (divorced) owner of the house. Reader, he married her. They still live in that house today. 🙂

            Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 18, 2017, 9:59 am
  5. Nice post. Loved the insights into the characters.

    Posted by Catherine Castle | February 17, 2017, 2:28 pm
  6. Hey Jen!
    Lovely post. I don’t tend to keep a lot of things because I move overseas so much, but I think it’s a human trait to want to keep things. Since I can’t afford space anymore, I find that I hoard electronically now. My Dropbox is ridiculous. I have fifty email boxes because I can’t bring myself to trash emails. I have three clouds for storing THE SAME pictures. I’m running out of room on Instapaper. Partly this is due to “I want to read this later” syndrome. Logically I don’t need to save them since I can Google what I need later (and I have a feeling that nothing is ever really “trashed” on a Macbook. Unless you really need it.) But for some reason, I can’t diminish the number of e-newsletters I get. I don’t unsubscribe. And I save. I think we’re all part squirrel in some way.

    Posted by Larissa Reinhart | February 17, 2017, 7:45 pm
    • And I went on a tangent and forgot to answer the original question…I think my characters are similar. They have a few items that remind them of their past. But (maybe because this is true of mysteries) they keep a running mental list all the time.

      Posted by Larissa Reinhart | February 17, 2017, 7:47 pm
    • Hey Ris!

      I just increased the storage on my Dropbox and iCloud accounts because of the volume of pictures from the remodel. Heh. I’m getting better at jettisoning stuff, but unfortunately, my mom has the same idea. Every time she comes to visit, she brings something she doesn’t use but can’t quite part with. She bequeathed me with an electric meat slicer from the 70s on her last visit.

      I think hanging onto stuff is normal, but everyone’s idea of ‘normal’ is different. I also think it’s strange if people don’t have a single item from their past. If Cherry or Maisie broke into a suspect’s house and didn’t find any pictures or personal mementos other than a toothbrush, wouldn’t that raise their suspicions?

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 17, 2017, 9:32 pm
  7. I like this idea. It would be a convenient way to insert backstory, plus show the character’s personality. After all, what you keep says something about who you are.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | February 18, 2017, 10:18 am
    • Hi Glynis,

      I agree with your assessment. When I was tossing stuff out, I realized I’d kept things because they held some importance during different periods of my life and over the years, my priorities changed. I changed. I guess that’s worth exploring, too.

      Have a good weekend.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 18, 2017, 3:36 pm
  8. A very interesting post.

    Posted by Barbara | February 18, 2017, 11:49 pm

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