Objects have a life of their own, and this holds true in fiction as well as life. As a writer, I think it helps me to take advantage of this, to use this to enrich a story and enrich a character.
I've been thinking about this a bit since Wanu brought up characterization in the last thread. And characterization is one of the biggies, ain't it? A lot of what you do in a story will live and die with how well you develop a character (and a character arc). So I thought I'd put out a couple of ideas on characterization that I have floating around in my head (before I forget them). And, too, I find a sort of clarity by writing something down, a certain cohesion. Write it down and you have something to build on later...
So, the oldie but goodie aspect first: the five senses. The first thing I (almost) always try to do is to filter the story through the senses of a character. This provides immediacy, but it also provides, I think, the beginnings of individuality. My goal is to try and filter it through a particular character's senses. That is, not just generic sights, sounds, and smells, but details specific to an individual character. Are they visually oriented? I know I am, so as a writer I have to make sure to add other sensory details as well. I like touch... nothing is more immediate than touch. What are the sensory details that character would notice? Are they visual observers, or are they highly keyed towards audio? So, show the world through a character, and show what's meaningful to them.
Now we get to particular things, the actual objects of the world these characters experience. Again, my goal is to find particularity rather than generality. Objects have their own personalities. It's not just a refrigerator, it's a new fridge or an old one. Expensive or cheap? Shiny or dull? So this way I have a particular character experiencing a particular object.
What's the history of the object? What does it mean to the character? In one of my stories I have a woman with a new fridge. A new home, and a shiny high-tech new fridge. It's unmarked, gleaming, the brushed steel offering a distorted image... it's something she doesn't like, something her husband purchased as a sort of status symbol to show how he was rising in the world, to show what he had achieved. And yet his wife sits in her big new home isolated and alone, with only a gleaming fridge for company.
The history of the object has allowed an inanimate thing to take on a certain life, becoming almost a character, something for the MC to play off and reveal something of herself. After this you can then broaden the history. We now have a connection between a character and an object, in this case a fridge... but what about other fridges? Does her memory connect this fridge with any other? The character then makes a connection in her memory, a connection to her mother's fridge, a very different one than her own. White, a little dull, a little old and battered, and yet also loved, strewn as it is with grocery lists, photographs and the wobbly art of children. Now we have a disparity between two objects, two different histories, and these differences become relevant. The woman is childless, and the disparity highlights her sense of loss and isolation.
The simple object now works in the story almost as metahpor and symbol. It's active rather than passive, and this activity is really an embodiment of the character, of the tensions and conflicts inside them. A simple fridge has allowed the story to reflect two different histories, two different aspects of the character, as well as reflect the tension/conflict that forms one of the key dynamics of the story.
For me, this is a very useful technique, largely because it mirrors consciousness, and the revelation of a particular consciousness is the revelation of character. It allows the creation of a three dimensional character operating within their own unique world. It's a reflection of memory, really, a recognition of the subjective value of things rather than the merely objective. It's not a fridge, it's her fridge. It's not just an object, it's a part of a particular world, one piece of an interconnected tapestry of fictionalized memories.
So, objects and characterization... what's important to you when developing characters? Are there any craft tricks you like? Do you start with an image or a voice? Or something else entirely? Lay it on me...