Harry Potter’s wand. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. What makes these objects more than props that are used in a story? Each of them reveals the character’s personality and helps tell the story.
For example, Harry Potter’s wand had the same phoenix feather at its core as the wand of his enemy Voldemort. This reveals that both of them were brilliant wizards from difficult upbringings, but one turned to good while the other turned to evil. The similarities in the wands and the characters play important roles in the later Harry Potter books.
The character’s personality can also be revealed in an object’s backstory. When Obi-Wan Kenobi presents the lightsaber to Luke Skywalker, he tells him that it belonged to his father. Of course, we later find out who his father is. The lightsaber becomes more than just the weapon Luke uses to defeat his enemies. It reveals his inner conflict.
Objects can also set the mood of the story. Their appearance can tells us that something horrible can happen, like the cattle gun used by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Objects can also reveal that something is off about the character, such as the ball bearings clacked by Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.
When objects gain enough importance and meaning, they can drive the action in a story. Dorothy’s ruby slippers (or the silver ones in the book) send her on the journey through Oz and drive her conflict with the Wicked Witch of the West. Rosebud provided the mystery behind the character in Citizen Kane. The quest for some mysterious artifact drives the action in the Indiana Jones movies.
Objects shouldn’t become so important that they overshadow the characters in the story. As an audience, we want to be engaged by the people in a story, not things. However, objects can help us become more engaged with the people. When we see an item that is important to someone we care about, it becomes important to us. Objects can also help us relate to a character. Our possessions have value and history to us, so it seems natural that a character’s possessions would have meaning to him or her as well.
How do we create an object in our stories that is more than just a prop?
- Introduce the object early (but don’t draw too much attention to it.) In my script Comic Book Heroes, my character Amy has an old iPhone that later plays an important part in the story. I introduce it briefly by having her take it out of her pocket to check for messages. This is something all of us with smartphones do, so it is a way to introduce the item naturally.
- Show how the characters react to them. In the same scene, another character makes a comment about how old her iPhone is. This gives Amy the opportunity to explain that this was a gift that her favorite high school teacher gave her. Even if she could afford to upgrade (which she can’t), this gift means too much for her to let it go. This scene provides some backstory while revealing Amy’s character.
- Give each appearance of the object increasing importance. Each time Amy pulls out her iPhone, she gets more information about the mystery she is uncovering. So, whenever the audience sees Amy with her iPhone, they know something important is going to happen.
- The object plays an important role in the climax. I won’t give away any spoilers, but think about how Dorothy uses the ruby slippers at the end of The Wizard of Oz, or what happens to the “Heart of the Ocean” necklace in Titanic.
When used properly, an object can be more than just a prop. It can reveal character, provide backstory, and set the mood.