The Well-Accessorized Character

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April 27, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Never underestimate the importance of accessorizing. Hey fellas, don’t run yet. We’re not talking jewelry here, we’re talking about making memorable characters.

Let’s try an experiment. I’ll give you some signature accessories, you just try NOT to know who I’m talking about.
  1. Wand and round glasses
  2. Pipe and deerstalker hat
  3. Towel and bathrobe
  4. Sting and ring
  5. Bowtie and blue box

OK, since it’s Saturday and no one can expect to have all brain cells fully engaged on the weekend, I’ll give you the answers:

  1. Harry Potter
  2. Sherlock Holmes
  3. Arthur Dent
  4. Frodo Baggins 
  5. Doctor Whomatt-smith-doctor-who-image-01

I think with these five examples alone, I can make a powerful argument for the importance of appropriately accessorizing our characters. As you can see, some things become so iconic that they’re immediately recognizable. I mean, hell, I could show up at a Halloween party wearing my hideous pink fuzzy robe and carrying any towel from my linen closet and have my “costume” be fairly recognizable to sci-fi fans.

Now, before anyone rushes off to plop giant purple pimp hats on their characters just to make them stand out, let’s talk a bit about the importance of the right accessories.

Really awesome, really iconic accessories tell us something about the character. They’re symbols.

These accessories tell us about the character’s personality, motives, or something important about their history. Rather than go through a ton of examples, let’s just take Doctor Who into consideration. While the Tardis and, in later seasons, the sonic screwdriver are iconic accessories for every Doctor, each incarnation has his own personalized accessories.

Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor, has his short, black leather jacket. This is a fitting accessory for him because in this incarnation he has a bit of the bad-boy persona. At least compared to the other Doctors. He’s more aggressive and has a temper.

David Tennant, the tenth Doctor, has his Converse sneakers and ankle length coat. These accessories help us shift to a gentler, geekier, fun-loving Doctor.

Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor, has his bowtie and suspenders. Now we’re to what I like to call the Doctor’s mad-scientist phase. Matt Smith’s clothing always reminds me of a tweed-wearing ivory tower academic. But, there’s something off about the Doctor, almost as if he can’t quite determine who he is in this incarnation. He skips around from bowties, to fezzes, to stetson hats declaring each to be cool so vehemently that I wonder who he’s trying to convince: Amy, the audience, or himself.

Are you getting the picture here?

Because the picture these accessories paint is the entire point. Some authors will describe their characters in lovingly crafted detail, some authors will only give us only the sketchiest of descriptions preferring to let the reader flesh the character out in their own mind. I have loved characters from books presented both ways.

The ones that really stick in my mind also have signature accessories. Something they wear or carry that permanently marks that character. An anchor that latches that character into my subconscious mind and remains long after I’ve finished a book.

As I was preparing to write this post, I was amazed at how easy it was to grab some of these anchors and pull characters from my memory. Here are a few of my other faves:

  • Jane Yellowrock- from the series by Faith Hunter has her vamp stakes that double as hair accessories and her bike, Bitsa.
  • Malcolm Reynolds- from Firefly has his brown coat.
  • Rachel Morgan- from the series by Kim Harrison has her splat gun and charms.
  • Stefan Uccello-a vampire from the Meredes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs has his van that is customized to look like the Mystery Machine. I really like this example because Stefan isn’t really a main character, but he sticks out in my mind just because of his van.
  • Anita Blake- from the series by Laurell K. Hamilton has her stuffed penguins and snarky coffee mugs.
  • Mitchell- the vampire from Being Human (UK version) is always wearing fingerless gloves.
  • Wolverine- from the X-Men has his cigar.

If you’re familiar with these characters, think about what these accessories tell us about them.

Now think about the characters you write and how you could accessorize them. The main character, Jac, from my book Murphy’s First Law carries a messenger bag everywhere. Now this isn’t just a convenient conveyance for her side-kick Oliver, the talking squirrel. The bag (and its contents) show her need to be prepared and it’s also a symbol of the emotional baggage she carries.

So, what about you? What characters stand out in your mind because of their accessories? Or tell us about accessories you’ve used for your characters.
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15 thoughts on “The Well-Accessorized Character

  1. Vagrance says:

    I never thought about it; I just thought attaching crossbows to fiesty young woman seemed amusing.

    Number 4 could’ve just as easily been Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo.

    By the way, Is it just me, or does the doctor in picture 5 look like he’s holding an adult “glow-in-the-dark” toy?

    • Yep, I almost added Bilbo as an afterthought to #4.

      Weapons in general are interesting accessories. Is this person a warrior, a killer, paranoid, wants to feel safe, has violent tendencies? I’ll admit I didn’t think much about it when I first gave Jac her messenger bag, it just kind of evolved. I think the imagery is mostly for me at this point, but we’ll see.

      And yes, it totally looks like Matt Smith should be at a rave 🙂

      And yes, I am willfully ignoring any other possible references…

      • Vagrance says:

        The most creative accessory in my reading list comes from a Japanese novel. The sorceress of the story carries an overhead projector. When activated, it unleashes a demonic cat/shadow thing that devours her enemies.

  2. Very cool post! I never really thought about this, but your right! Good characters have easily-identifiable accessories, don’t they? I’m trying to think in my own book … well, Varrin always wears black, if that counts as an accessory, lol. Eris has a white gemstone necklace that she always wears. Beyond that … well, Eris is the main character and she keeps changing her hair/clothing, so not much consistency there. Maybe I need to get a little more consistent …

    • Varrin’s matte black armor could definitely be considered a signature accessory, especially after that one line in the book. See, it’s imprinted on my brain! God, I loved that bit.

      I don’t know that Eris needs more, sometimes what marks a character is inconsistency. Depends on where you want to take her. One might argue the lamri could be a signature accessory. I mean, Arthur Dent isn’t the only one with a towel in Hitchhiker’s…

      • True! The towel is practically Ford Prefect’s identity. And I didn’t even think of Varrin’s matte black armor. Although possibly that’s because it’s 3 a.m. and I need to sleep, lol.

  3. MishaBurnett says:

    About midway through Catskinner’s Book Catskinner picks up a group of knives that he is attached to, I suppose I could do more with that. Godiva has her sunglasses and false teeth, but those aren’t really accessories so much as a disguise that lets her pass for human. Russwin’s got his gun…

    Interesting post, I’ll have to think about it.

    • Something that I purposely left out of this post is that “accessories” don’t have to be clothing, weapons, etc. There are other ways to “brand” you characters: tattoos, scars, a certain mannerism, a catch phrase, the possibilities are practically endless.

      I have Oliver, my poor cursed squirrel, and he’s a little too small to put clothes on. So I amped up his personalty and he gets to say all the fun stuff.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I love Oliver, he’s enough of a pompous ass that you can use him for all the boring exposition without sounding forced, and the contrast between his dialogue (I hear him speaking in John Houseman’s voice) and the fact that he’s a squirrel is absurd enough to keep him amusing.

        With Catskinner’s voice I used all small letters and italics deliberately to set him off from everyone else. I actually avoided using italics for anything other than Catskinner talking, which ended up being more difficult than I imagined.

      • You outed my exposition trick! Curses….

        I liked the way you showed Catskinner’s voice. I was just thinking, is Catskinner himself enough of a “iconic accessory” for James that anything else might detract? Then again, maybe the knives could be used to show Catskinner in charge and another accessory to highlight when James is in charge.

        Sorry, I’m just intrigued by the concept and I’m spewing ideas. Not your book, bad Kira!

  4. Mmm. I’m a huge geekophile, so I always take note of characters with iconic glasses and nerd-chic styles, but who can forget things like the epic leather Matrix coats or superhero regalia of every sort? Some of my favorite characters also have iconic hair – whether that’s Hermione’s unruly curls or sexy knights and hunters with flippy dark hair. I’m a sucker for the right kind of “accessory,” broadly defined.

    Admittedly, though, I feel like this matters more to me in visual media. The things I remember most about the characters in novels and short stories are distinct voices and intriguing internal logics. I have no idea what the protagonist in *Parable of the Sower* wore throughout the book, though there was another interesting character with a shopping cart. The jewels worn by the characters I enjoy most in the Black Jewels Trilogy aren’t really accessories so much as manifestations of inner power – though rings of service were a pretty key accessory here. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about this more.

    Thanks for getting my gears turning! 🙂

  5. Erica Dakin says:

    I was just about to ask about mannerisms, and then you mentioned them in one of your replies. The male lead in my second novel always hooks his hand around his arm behind his back when he wants to touch something he shouldn’t, which is one very distinct mannerism he displays. I think the main difficulty with things like these is using them enough that it is a clear mannerism, but not using them so much that it starts annoying people. I’m mainly thinking of Nynaeve’s braid-tugging in Wheel of Time here.
    I also have a secondary character who’s obsessed with feathers, but that’s a whole different story…

    • You know, I’ve been trying to think of any character branding mannerisms from books I’ve read, but not much really stands out. Actually, I have one, just one. Durzo Blint the assassin, excuse me “wetboy”, from Brent Week’s Night Angel Trilogy spins a knife through his fingers when something’s bothering him. It’s actually very well done, because it allows the main character to pick up on the mood of his mentor and shows there’s more to the hardboiled killer than meets the eye.

      I did have to dig pretty deep to even remember that one, though. I think you’re right, it’s a tricky technique to use because it has to mean something and if it’s overused you’ll just annoy the reader.

  6. […] Kira Lyn Blue is a busy girl! And she has another fascinating post on characters that cracked me up by the sixth line! And she’s right. Read that list of […]

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