Something I almost never read about in the cozy mysteries I love so much is trash. Refuse. The detritus of human life. Lots of my favorite series deal with cooking, pets, books, bookstores, libraries, and crafting, but none of the characters spend time throwing stuff out. Most of my favorite authors would probably say that’s because a character doesn’t move a story forward while she’s taking out the trash. Unless she comes across a lifeless body hidden in a dumpster. But writers, think about what a revelation examining someone’s trash can be.
At my house, for example, a trash raider will find many empty potato chip bags in my garbage can and empty sour cream containers in my recycle bin. (I’ve been stress eating.) (Don’t judge me.) The invader will also find about two boxes worth of used facial tissues (I hope he gets my cold), banana peels, beverage cups from McDonald’s, soy milk cartons, an empty jar of peanut butter, a flattened box of chili mix, plastic grocery bags, and wrinkled packages of shredded cheese with crumbs in them. What can the trash connoisseur deduce about me? Well, he can guess that I don’t eat well-rounded meals, I’m probably sick, and I buy food often, rather than stocking up once a week like a lot of other consumers. Is that information useful? Maybe, maybe not, but it shows my character quirks very well.
What’s not in my trash is also revealing. No shredded paper, no bills, no used check registers or cancelled checks, no newspapers, but a few magazines and lots of junk mail. What does that say about me as a character? Am I a hoarder? Do I live off the grid? Do I embrace an electronic lifestyle and get my bills and news via the internet? Perhaps.
If you’re struggling with a character that is important to your story but remains elusive, try touring her trash. It might help you nail down her personality and give her some pizzazz. “Normal” items like cat food cans, chicken bones, egg shells, and empty yogurt containers won’t help you, so it’s OK to bypass those. You’re after more telling garbage . . . like that mailer with a return address from Frederick’s of Hollywood, the empty Ativan prescription bottle that was renewed five days ago, or the used tampon applicator. (Ewww.)
Let your imagination wander through the wastebasket. If your character is shy or bookish, would she order lingerie? Why would she order lingerie if there’s a Victoria’s Secret in town? There’s nothing unusual about taking an antidepressant these days, but why is the bottle empty already? If she’s almost 55 years old, would she still need to use tampons?
Dumpster diving won’t often wind up on the printed page, and that’s as it should be. Just visualizing it is a creative exercise you can do to identify specific traits of a character who isn’t acting the way you want her to. Organizational charts and diagrams only help you so much. You’re looking for telltale clues, like a half-finished confession or a discarded suicide note, that give you a picture of her life and help you get to know her personally. Then it’s easier to make her actions match her personality.
Your hero, your villain, your victim, your recurring characters may be well known friends to you by the time you write them. You may never need to raid their trash to get a good sense of who they are. But the elusive ones can come to life if you look at the things they throw away.
What are your characters putting in their trash this week?