Alan Alda who played Hawkeye Pierce in the ueber-successful television series M*A*S*H, credits dog tags and a pair of army boots supplied to him by the show’s costume department with helping him clinch the character of Hawkeye.
Both the dog tags and the army boots had actually been worn by soldiers. (The tags bore the names of two different G.I.s.) Something about these items helped him bring Hawkeye to life. When he put on the uncomfortable army issue footwear, the challenges of being a surgeon in a Korean zone of war in the 50’s became real for him.
As authors faced with the challenge of bringing our characters to life, it’s not a bad idea for us to “start with the shoes” – that is, to start with a character’s shoes.
There’s a reason so many people are fascinated with shoes. They can reveal so much:
- Are they newish, clean, polished to a fare-thee-well? Or, ripped at the seams, down at the heel, and spattered with dubious substances?
- Are they the latest nosebleed-priced designer pumps/sneakers/lace-ups? Or Soles-for-Less specials guaranteed to last a month or two and to dissolve in a rainstorm?
- Are they sandals dyed to match a pale lavender outfit worn on a night on the town? Or are they sensible black shoes meant to last a lifetime? Well, you get the picture.
Shoes help an author get a foot in a character’s door.
Imagine the shoes your character collects, and you can imagine his or her socioeconomic status (or financial challenges), sense of taste, and attitude to fashion, to fitting in, to work, to play, to romance, and so on.
Do you need to tell the reader what’s helping your hero navigate the streets of your story? Sure – it might be one of the details you wish to share. In other words, you can if you want to – but you don’t need to. The point is: you should know.
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