Using inanimate objects as characters – Elizabeth Kay

It’s been the mainstay of many a book for small children – Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the biggest sellers of all time. But adult writers use inanimate objects as well. Christine, by Stephen King, is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, even though you know the premise is totally impossible. A murderous car that reassembles itself every time someone tries to smash it up? He also wrote one of the best books on writing ever written – called, appropriately enough – On Writing.
 The closest I’ve ever got to that was a poem called In Memoriam, which was published in The Spirit Collection.

So sudden.  The night before you were fine,
a little hesitant, perhaps, your growl
more pronounced.  But no real warning, no sign,
that you would never stir again.  The towel
had been thrown in, and I was not prepared.
I washed you lovingly that final time,
with steady hands - but I was feeling scared
of how I’d cope without you.  In your prime
you gave me all you had.  Such memories;
the coast road to Dubrovnik, winding down
to camp amongst the fig and olive trees -
and then at dusk, the short run into town.
I knew your moods - you didn’t like the damp,
you used to grumble in the fog, but then
it took more than a rainy day to cramp
your style; and now you’ll never move again.

He came for you next morning, blocked the street
with his conveyance.  Several curtains twitched;
the rain, in sympathy, turned into sleet.
And I just stood and watched, as though bewitched.

He chained you to the tow-truck, and I felt
the wrench as he began to pull away -
but in the cards that breakdown dealer dealt,
post-mortem, you had one last trump to play.
Your muscles tightened, stiffened with a jerk -
a handbrake rigor mortis, then the smell
of burning rubber, wheels that wouldn’t work.
He had to stop.  He shouted, “What the hell?
A clapped-out car that doesn’t want to leave?”
I looked away - then I saw the lily,
laughed, and placed it on your bonnet.  I’ll grieve
in private; Sierra tears look silly.

So, car, you’ve reached that scrapheap in the sky -
and I must loot the papers for another.
I won’t forget you.  But someone, tell me why
I didn’t weep this way about my mother?

I think things with wheels or legs make the best characters, as they’re potentially mobile. It’s quite difficult to be convincing about a naughty watering can that gets the urge to wet people’s feet every so often, or a large stone that has a severe case of depression.
            But as with all stories, it’s what motivates the characters that really matters, and as we have no idea how watering can or a boulder might think, we’re free to let our imaginations run riot. I’ve experimented with sentient coat-stands and chairs, both of which have feet, and it’s fun. Of course, magic helps enormously…

“You’re so lucky, living here,” said Mattie’s friend Bryony. The two of them were sitting in the porch to get away from the rain, watching the stone statues pulling each other’s hair and kicking one another on the shins. “I wish I had a greeting-chair that ran to meet me when I got home from school.”
            “Sometimes it gallops off with me instead,” Mattie pointed out, “and tips me into the fountain.”

Mattie sighed, and went to get her coat. The coat-stand, which was made of the very best eldritch-ebony, had been in an argumentative mood. “It’s going to rain again later,” it told her, in its I-know-best voice. “You’re not going out without boots, an umbrella and that nice thick winter raincoat.”
“But it’s summer!” Mattie had protested.
“I think you’ll find I’m older and wiser than you, child,” said the coat-stand patronisingly. “It can get quite cold in June. I’m not opening the front door until you do as I say.”

The fun part is trying to imagine what actually matters to these characters. Clearly, a coat-stand performs a particular function, so caring about clothing and the weather works well. To make it funny you need to exaggerate it, though. You can also make your inanimate object  behave out of character – statues traditionally are rather austere, so having them thump each other and pull one another’s hair turns them into spiteful children. As with every character, give it a hobby or an obsession and it springs to life. And the more inappropriate the hobby, the better. It’s not so different from trying to make a troll come to life… Snot the Troggle appears in Jinx on the Divide, and although he exhibits many trollish tendencies, he’s not your standard troll…

The creature that confronted him was something he’d never actually seen before, although he’d heard about them. It was huge. It was mean. It was a troggle – he’d heard it called a troll, in the other world. It sat there and stared at him with its little ice-blue eyes, the chain that worked the lift looped over its shoulder. It obviously hauled the cage up and down all by itself, for there was a faint sheen of sweat on its skin. It would hate the daylight, so a career as an elevator operative down here was ideal.
“Hello,” said Grimspite, unsure how to tackle this.
The troggle grunted. Its lips hardly moved, although its yellowish tusks quivered slightly. It had a square flattish snout, and big pointed ears that stuck out at an angle. Its hair was thick and a dull brownish-grey, like old rope, and it had two knitting needles stuck behind one ear. It had the most muscular body Grimspite had ever seen on a two-legged being, which may have been why it didn’t seem bothered by the sight of sinistrom…
“That’s nice,” said Grimspite, pointing to whatever it was the creature was making.
The troggle held it up. It was a gauntlet – he wasn’t knitting with wool, he was using a ball of wire.

Have a look around you. What could you animate? A coffee cup that hates tea? A printer that has a mind its own? A camera that takes pictures when no one’s looking? There are endless possibilities…


Lydia Bennet said…
Interesting post Elizabeth. The singer/songwriter Nev Clay has a song about this, he says if you put cartoon eyes on anything it becomes cute and a character! I think of my cars as living critters (well all the girls and they have names - my last car was a BMW and somehow male and nameless). Poets sometimes write in the voices of inanimate things. The Japanese films such as Spirited Away have enriched this tradition, animating legless beings like rivers.
Anonymous said…
A desk that rearranges paperwork and hides pens, spills ink...oh wait....I have one of those.

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