What kind of car does your character drive?

Posted: August 25, 2011 in Writing
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What kind of car does your character drive?

In making the movie 48 Hours, there was very little script or rehearsal. The movie was mostly shot in sequence and the story grew and changed as it progressed. Early in the filming, there was a scene where Nick Nolte walked out of his girlfriend’s house to get into his car. The director, Walter Hill, had parked an old beat-up Cadillac convertible in the street with one wheel up on the curb. Seeing that car and how it was parked told Nolte more about his character than any direction would have.

The same is true of the characters in the stories we write. We are often instructed to show and not tell. While there are many visual clues we could give our readers as to the ‘character’ of our characters, few can say as much about their personality than the car they drive. Is it old or new? Well kept or a beater? Is it an expensive status symbol or the cheapest thing with wheels?

Travis Mcgee had two modes of transportation – a houseboat named the ‘Busted Flush’ that he won in a poker game, and a painted-purple Rolls-Royce that has been converted to a pickup truck called ‘Miss Agnes.’ If that were all you knew about this character, you would know a lot.

Kinsey Millhone drives a battered VW that befits her style as a near pauper. This is the antithesis of most male private detectives who drive flashy sports cars, although we are never sure what, if any, car is driven by Spenser, Boston’s favorite son. This begs the question, “What difference does it make what car a character drives?” It may not. There are many other ways to let your readers see your characters, but few can so much with so little.

Next time you are in or by a parking lot, look at the cars parked there. Many, if not most, are non-descript and forgettable. Those aren’t the ones I mean. I’m talking about the ones that grab your attention and make you wonder about who is driving them. The truck that is set so high on large tires you need a ladder to get in. The expensive sports car parked out on the edge of the lot. The older cars – both the pristine antiques that show meticulous care, and the old rust buckets that are barely hanging together. Each of these gives you some insight into the driver, and would give your readers insight into your character.

Consider these sentences, which all describe the same scene.

Dave Johnson got into his car.

Dave Johnson climbed up into his rig, the oversized tires spattered with a coating of mud.

Dave Johnson clicked the remote unlocking and starting his silver Maybach.

Dave Johnson pried open the door of his 1963 Dodge, hoping the rusty hinges would hold one more time.

The same guy getting into a car. The first one tells us nothing, while the next three tells us a great deal about who this character is in a single sentence.

This is especially useful in first person narratives. I am frequently at a loss for getting readers to ‘see’ a character that is the first person narrator. You can’t say, “I’m Dave Johnson, and I’m rich.” Well, you can, but it’s a bit clumsy. Better to have the character describe something about himself. The type and condition of his or her car can tell the reader a great deal.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get on my motorcycle and ride into the sunset.




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