Props in Writing: How do you use yours?

Sorting out an issue with a character in my ‘work-in-progress’ children’s’ story yesterday, I ended up giving them a prop to wear. Suddenly, everything clicked into place for her; hitherto I had been aware of the possibility of a glaring inconsistency which had the potential to stop my efforts in their tracks; but now, the way is clear to carry on with the story, safe in the knowledge that at least one discrepancy has been dealt with. (I am quite aware that many more lurk in the pages of draft number one; I’ll cross those bridges when they’ve been uncovered.)

The prop is question is a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Not über-trendy wrap-arounds or sci-fi chic, X-Men laser-eye protector shields (although mine do play a similar role, as it happens); rather, good, old-fashioned, aviator mirrored sunglasses. The sort sported so admirably by the lads from CHiPs back in the 70s.

CHiPs the The boys from California Highway Patrol modelling my new prop.

CHiPs. The boys from the California Highway Patrol modelling my new prop.

 Already, I’m beginning to see my character differently; she even has a new way of speaking. The glasses have lent her a confidence which was lacking previously; this is a good thing: she’s about to face a test of nerve and stamina. Already quite an unusual character, the glasses augment her traits; I hope she’ll turn out to be even more memorable than she would have been before.

 All this has got me thinking more generally about the way writers use props in their work: the role they play, how they can make a character more memorable – in some cases how the prop itself appears to become the character – and even how an entire work hinges on the presence of a prop.

 Take for instance Sherlock Holmes. Try imagining Conon Doyle’s creation sans  pipe; you can’t. It is absolutely synonymous with the detective, and it is nigh on impossible to even think about him without also seeing a pipe.

Holmes as we all know him now.

Holmes as we all know him now.

 That other literary detective, Hercule Poirot, is so intrinsically associated with his upwardly-curled moustache, pince-nez and patent leather shoes, that I doubt he would be recognised if he stepped out of his apartment without them. His shoes in particular serve to highlight the prissy and very particular aspect of Poirot’s nature.

M. Hercule Poirot demonstrates the effectiveness of a few well-utilized props.

M. Hercule Poirot demonstrates the effectiveness of a few well-utilized props.

 There is, of course, a danger here: it is all too easy to visualise these characters as they are depicted in popular film and TV adaptations. However, Poirot, as Agatha Christie saw him, does appear with these props intact, and Holmes was an inveterate pipe smoker (although the curved pipe was popularised, I think, by Basil Rathbone’s interpretation, and the deerstalker was never actually mentioned in the books).

 The Artful Dodger, my favourite character from Oliver Twist, sports his past-its-best top hat with singular style: it was “stuck on his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment.” artful dodgerDickens even gives his boy-thief a head twitch to keep his hat on; so here we have an example of a prop creating a character’s mannerisms. Dodger is the little boy in a big, bad world, who takes the smaller, frightened Oliver under his old-hand’s wing. With his hat, he stands just that bit taller, which is just how wants to be seen.

 Another character from Dickens wears her prop as a symbol of her lost love; as evidence of a mind consumed by grief, and a body sinking into decay and despair. Miss Havisham continues to wear her wedding dress years after being jilted; it is yellowed, withered and hangs loosely upon her body. It acts as a potent metaphor for her state of mind, and is an enduring image from Great Expectations, as indeed is the fire which consumes the dress – and Miss Havisham in it – turning it into “a black shower” of tinders falling around Pip and the unfortunate woman.

Miss Havisham. Great Expectations.

Miss Havisham. ‘Great Expectations’.

 Then there are the props without which a character couldn’t be who they are: Harry Potter’s wand for example. Harry only really appreciates for the first time that he is a wizard when taken to Ollivander’s wand shop, and his wand chooses him. Not to mention the fact that wizards need wands to operate: you try casting a spell without your phoenix-tail or dragon’s tendril wand.

 Other props in literature take on a significantly more central role. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s spectacles are so important to the story’s plot and message that they appear on the front cover of some editions; in my own copy, a 1980s school edition, they are the only thing on the cover.

'Lord of the Flies'. Educational Edition. 1985

‘Lord of the Flies’. Educational Edition. 1985

In the course of the story Piggy’s glasses become broken; eventually he loses them completely; finally he himself dies. Golding uses the glasses as a metaphor for the gradual breakdown of civilisation the marooned boys experience: with Piggy’s glasses, they can make fire; without them, they are lost. Piggy, and his glasses, were a last link to common sense and salvation; once gone, anarchy reigns supreme.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in the 1963 film adaptation of 'Lord of the Flies'.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in the 1963 film adaptation of ‘Lord of the Flies’.

 On a lighter literary note, we have Mary Poppins. P L Travers could have had the magical nanny arrive at 17 Cherry Tree Lane by any means available: on foot, by omnibus, by penny farthing. Instead, she has Ms Poppins parachuting in my means of an umbrella.

'Mary Poppins'. Illustrated by Mary Shepard.

‘Mary Poppins’. Illustrated by Mary Shepard.

The umbrella is a prop par excellance in that it irrefutably marks the character out as someone rather different, whilst at the same time creating the enduring image of the story; one which continues to be used to this day to market films, DVDs and the musical. In the days before every last penny was squeezed industrially out of a franchise, did Travers know what she was creating with that umbrella? Perhaps not; but I’ll bet she knew it would do the trick with her young audience in gripping them from the start with that wonderful image as they read her stories.

 Incidentally, Mary Poppins’ other favourite prop, her voluminous carpet bag, brings to mind another literary work in which the entire action of the piece rests singularly on a prop.

 Imagine Lady Bracknell’s reaction if ‘Ernest’ had been found hidden in something other than a handbag. “In a wooden crate?” “In a coal shovel?” “In a flour sack?” “In a crinoline underskirt?” They just don’t have the same ring to them, do they?

 Props, then, can make or break a story; they can help illustrate strengths or weaknesses; aid a character in their quest; fix a character more colourfully in the reader’s mind; or, more practically, assist the writer in sorting out a plot inconsistency.

 A note of caution however: unless you want your character to look like they’ve just had a field day in a flea market, go easy on the props. An umbrella and carpet bag were enough for Mary Poppins; that disintegrating, faded wedding dress was all Miss Haversham required; and Master Potter didn’t really use much else other than his trusty wand to defeat evil and save the world.

 I’m erecting a sign above the entrance to my own prop store: “Use Sparingly for Maximum Effect”, it says. As long as I remember my own advice, I should be fine.

Has the use of props in your writing helped you out of a difficult plot situation? Has a character suddenly flowered and grown by having them wear something new? Have you ever had a prop take over your story? I’d be very interested to know your experiences.

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