Friday, March 4, 2011

Pocket Litter

In the novel, Body of Lies, by David Ignatius, the CIA gives a body an entirely new identity. The process involved the typical things associated with new identities: an address and work place, telephone and cable bills, even a girlfriend. They dressed him in the right clothing, making sure to scuff the shoes and break them in. The meticulous spooks went so far as to create “pocket litter” for their man - populating his pockets with various and sundry things that an ordinary person might carry. His pockets had dry-cleaning slips, phone numbers, receipts, maybe a subway ticket — I don’t remember the exact details of what they stuffed in his pockets — but the brilliance of doing it has stuck with me.

The point of the “pocket litter” was to make their man completely believable. This was a man who not only existed, but lived life on many levels of ordinary. He drank coffee, picked up his shirts from the cleaners, attended the symphony, called his girlfriend on his cell phone, and so on.

I’m not the CIA, and I’ll wager you aren’t either, but we’re sort of in the same business at times: creating believable identities. This idea hit home a few days ago as I wrote a scene in which my hero places the contents of his pockets on a table. It stumped me, I confess. What does my hero, Nathan Rivers, carry in his pockets? I played it safe and only mentioned his keys and wallet, but it bothered me that I didn’t know what else he had his pockets.

A minor thing, right? Who cares what he has in his right front pocket or even what he carries in his wallet? In the big picture, the grand scheme, it’s trivia, and might even bore readers to death if I were to inventory his pocket litter. (I’m not going to do that, so breath easy.) Still, it bothers me that I don’t know what’s in his pockets because it means there are areas of his development I haven’t considered.

Think about it this way: we all carry stuff with us. Ladies, you carry a bag most likely. Some of us carry huge bags with everything but the kitchen sink in them. Some of us carry bags so small they’re more like a wallet-on-a-string. Men, you most likely have a wallet, although some men, like my father, never carry one. He hates stuff in his pockets; his money is wrapped around his driver’s license and he has two keys. If you were to look in my mother’s wallet, you’d find pictures of grandkids, an ancient I.D. card from a university, paint swatches, coupons, and business cards. See where I’m going with this? What we carry is an intimate look at who we are. It’s stuff we keep closest to us and, for whatever reason, we’ve attached importance to it.

Not knowing what your characters have in their pockets and purses isn’t a big deal. In fact, it might be kind of silly. But on a deeper level, knowing what they carry might tell you what’s important to them. So here’s a challenge if you’re stuck one day: empty your hero’s pockets and see what he holds close. Dump out your heroine’s purse and find out why she thinks she needs All That Stuff.

If you're in the mood for sharing, give us three things you found and why they're important. I'm still thinking about Nathan's pockets, but I'll share when I figure it out.


  1. A vial of smelling salts (necessary for her profession, and for herself); a pencil and notebook (how she keeps her thoughts straight, and separates her dreams from reality) and her dead mother's pearl ring (a symbol for all she holds dear, and what drives her to the ends she takes herself)

    Excellent post, Susan. It's those small details - whether you use them directly or not - that really bring your character to life, absolutely.

  2. I love this suggestion, Susan.

    Immediately, I began going through Laura Grace's purse and found a shopping list, Tom's photo, the church keys to get in and clean up after one of those foster parties...but no make-up, none. She just doesn't even care about that.

    I foresee a lot of digging coming on. ; )

  3. Brilliant stuff, Susan! I love it.

    Oddly enough, one of the most important revelations to Kasia came from something she'd kept in her wallet since she was a kid ;)

  4. Hey, my dad doesn't carry a wallet either!
    Um, excuse me, bores us? I'd love to know what Nathan's carrying around!
    This sort of thing doesn't bore me at all - I love it when authors keep track of their characters' little possessions and I've been doing it throughout my own story. Paintings and books and swatches of silk...

  5. i haven't started writing anything with an amazing protagonist. however, I have been learning as well the deep meanings of things that we carry with us.

    a blankie (reminder of childhood - kind of a security blanket)
    a stuffed dolphin (comforter to tears)
    a silver ring (reminder of promises)

    these are a few things that I, myself, carry with me when I travel. I know it's ridiculous.

  6. Love your list Rachel! Your heroine carries a mix of practical and sentimental items. Bet she's like that in "real life," too, eh?

  7. Zan Marie, now why am NOT surprised at all by Laura Grace's list? (grin) I would have been shocked to find she carries make-up. The keys to the church and Tom's photo says a lot about what she considers important.

  8. Tara! You're a tease and now I'm eaten up with curiosity. What could Kasia, cool-as-cucumber FBI agent, be carrying? Hmmmm...

  9. Deniz, paintings, books and silk - sounds exotic!

    Nathan is most likely a minimalist when it comes to his pockets. I'm still mulling it over.

  10. Dr3am3r: self-awareness is important to a writer. Without it, we really can't dig deep within ourselves to create those amazing protagonists. Keep digging. :)

  11. Ack,Susan, I almost missed this post! And that would have been too bad because it's awesome. How clever to consider pocket litter. Hmm, what would be in Archer's pocket? A switchblade, pocket watch, a hairpin a certain someone might have lost at some point. :) Not much else. He doesn't tend to gather things.

    Love this exercise. Really gets you thinking.

  12. Kristen - LOL! Archer with a hairpin. Is it a reminder of "how" the hairpin came to be lost? A reminder of hair tumbling across naked shoulders...?

    Love it.

  13. Susan,

    HUH.. I've never really considered it. LOL. I'm sort of guessing Maddy would have a plastic spoon in hers...don't know why I would think that. If there happened to be ice cream residue on it, I wouldn't be all that shocked though. (g)

    I think the closest I've ever come to really thinking about this kind of thing is when I had Maddy toss Gabe's cabin in Faking It. I found myself wondering..huh... would Gabe have some Playboys hidden somewhere (yes), what would his financial papers look like (GOOD--especially when compared to Maddy's), and on and on. It was a random scene, written mostly for fun and to advance a certain plot point, but I found it really helped round Gabe out a little bit more. Definitely a good exercise to get to know some of the smaller details that you might overlook otherwise.

    Great post, Susan!

  14. Jen - Maddy would definitely have a spoon. (I have a friend who carries a metal spoon with her at all times. :P )

    What a great idea for rounding out a character - going through their home, their closets, their desk drawers... And I though going through a hero's pockets was hard! I love this idea.