Today is garbage day in my neighborhood. Naturally, when I went for a walk with my dog Annie this morning, I looked at my neighbors’ garbage. What did people throw away? What did their trash mean? What what can we discover about a person from what they throw away, and how they throw it away?
People leave clues about their character in their trash. Today we will practice character development by writing about someone’s garbage—what they throw away.
Study Garbage for Character Development
There are many ways to find out who your character is. You can develop your character by how they stand or ask them Marcel Proust’s list of thirty-five questions. Or, you can study their garbage.
Does your character stack recycling neatly, or just throw it in the bin? Are they organized? What cartons did they throw away? What containers are in recycling? Do they drink wine, whiskey, bottled water, or soda?
One of my neighbors once had pizza boxes from four different stores in their recycling bin. Did they have a pizza taste-testing party? Do my neighbors have trouble making up their mind?
An Example of Character Development Through Garbage
Let’s say a detective finds a body. The dismembered parts are in separate bags, all neatly wrapped and stacked up. There are three possible suspects.
The detective goes to the suspects’ houses. It’s garbage day, so he peeks at their trash as he arrives. How would the murderer dispose of their recycling? Neatly stacked or loosely thrown in the trash? Could you deduce who the killer is by looking at their trash?
While interviewing each suspect in their kitchen, the detective “accidentally” spills a box of toothpicks on the table. How would the three suspects respond to the spill? Would they stand the toothpicks neatly or just toss them back into the box?
What would the murderer do? Is the murderer pretending to be organized? Does checking out their garbage help you interpret the spilled toothpick test?
Your Garbage Writing Mission
Does this garbage character development technique sound interesting yet? Here are three ways to try it out yourself:
Mission 1: Find Interesting Garbage
Your mission, if you choose to accept it: walk around your neighborhood on garbage day and find interesting garbage. If you want, take a photograph to show us. Then, take fifteen minutes to interpret the garbage and imagine what its owner is like. Make a story up using the garbage items as prompts.
This message will self-destruct in three seconds after you read this. (This is not really true. But we can pretend it is true. I have always wanted to be in a real mission, like the television show Mission Impossible.)
Mission 2: Imagine Your Character’s Garbage
Choose a character from one of your stories and write about their garbage. Using their garbage as a prompt for character development, show us what they are like by what they throw away.
Mission 3: Pick a Photo of Garbage
Use one of the photographs from my personal collection of garbage photographs and write a story about the person who threw away the garbage.
Get Creative with Character Development
There are thousands of ways to show your readers who your characters are. Get creative, and keep your eyes open. If you notice something around you that sparks your imagination and makes you wonder about a person—like the garbage by someone’s driveway—use it as fodder for your stories.
Isn’t one man’s trash another writer’s treasure?
Have you ever wondered about a person from what you saw in their garbage? Please let us know in the comments.
After you have decided which mission you want to accept, begin your adventure.
Find a neighbor’s garbage to use as a prompt to develop a character, take a person from one of your stories and write about their garbage, or use one of the photographs in this article as a writing prompt. Write for fifteen minutes about one of the garbage missions, then post it in the comments.
Please be kind and comment on someone else’s writing. What can you tell about the person from their garbage?
P.S. If it takes you a few days to find good garbage, do not worry. I will keep checking back this week to read your garbage stories.