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Using inanimate objects as characters

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? How does a car like that think? What does it want, and why? 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. Terry Pratchett got around it by giving one of his best non-speaking characters feet. The Luggage is a wonderfully comic creation; read about it here.
And 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.
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…

Posted by author: Liz Newman
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6 thoughts on “Using inanimate objects as characters

  • What in interesting idea for a blog post! What are everyone’s favourite inanimate objects that become characters? I think mine was Blyton’s Wishing Chair. It didn’t speak but it did sometimes behave in a contrary way to lead the children into trouble!

  • Inanimate objects lend themselves readily to comedy. My “Occasional Table” kept a diary for a week, and wondered what are the duties of an Occasional Table? When a leg fell off it went through a variety of experiences until, on Sunday, it found out what an occasional table is really meant to do.

  • I’ve seen this idea be portrayed in children’s fairy tail stories growing up and one well known example of this is the Teacup and the kettle from beauty and the beast and as a kid watching this cartoon and the way these objects communicate and interact with each other I found very interesting .

    • I am happy that you are able to make a connection between the content shared here and your own experiences. I’m sure you would agree that learning about narratives is indeed fun 🙂

  • I love how they use inanimate objects rather than humans because that is something you don’t see in a story everyday, they might use animals or myths but never inanimate objects and this brings back so many joyous memories as a child watching beauty and the beasts and seeing the pots and pans come to life and giving beauty advice and their view and perspective of things and life overall

    • Isn’t it amazing how it is the use of these inanimate objects that oftentimes cause us as humans to really stop and think about our perspectives and actions? The power of the narrative!

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