Props? Green Umbrellas? But we’re writing, not putting together a costume, you say? Au contraire, my friends, props can be a writer’s best friend. And your character’s signature.
A “Green Umbrella” is a term I learned from Therese Porter and Rydell Downward in improv-acting classes for the Dickens Christmas Fair. I’m not entirely sure where they got it, but it’s one of those terms that grabs your attention. A Green Umbrella is a physical cue to your audience that they are dealing with someone unique. Using my Dickens Fair reference, a Green Umbrella is Scrooge’s night cap and the Ghost of Christmas Present’s velvet robe. A walking stick. A set of books. A mechanized Steam Man (okay, Jay Davis gets credit for the biggest and most obvious Green Umbrella at the Fair.) Widows wear black with veils. Tailors have tape measures around their shoulders. Authors and Artists have ink-stained hands and boxes of paints. Get the idea? When we are developing the character we will play at Dickens Fair, we are asked to think about a cue, a clue that we can give to someone in the audience about who we are without saying a word to them. That prop or costume part becomes a symbol of what we are ready to convey. Yet, in Fairs like the Dickens Fair, you either don’t get to talk to that customer or you get no more than 15 seconds. Your Green Umbrella needs to tell your story for you and needs to inform the audience who they’re dealing with. All without saying a thing.
Enter a written character’s Green Umbrella. Believe it or not, it works with the printed word. Even Donald Maass in his book The Fire in Fiction suggests that a physical cue is a good idea. He’s not the only expert to say this, but … as you may have already guessed: I don’t see it as much as I would like to.
Try this exercise: Ask yourself or your character (some of us have difficulty distinguishing between the two,) “What thing could you never part with? And why could you never part with it?” Or you can ask, “What one thing would you want to be associated with?” How about, “What tells your story without me having to tell your story for you?” You can, as an author, ask your characters to do some of the heavy lifting, you know.
Here’s an example of what I mean. In my novel, A Fearful Storm Gathering from the Volcano Lady books, my lead character witnesses a violent volcanic eruption that wipes out people she knows. She’s not a teenager yet and finds a child’s comfort in a symbol: a bracelet given to her by a victim’s wife. Now, as an adult, she carries it everywhere – it has become her rosary even though she does not belong to any religion. See the dichotomy: she has no use for religion but has a use for the trappings of religion? You also know that when that bracelet shows up, she is scared. It represents her fear, her attachment to the past, and is a binding object from scene to scene, and book to book. She has convinced herself that it is necessary for her to be focused on her life’s quest. If used correctly, I could start a chapter with nothing more than a description of the bracelet and the reader would know who it was wearing the bracelet, without my saying.
The Writer’s Digest company puts out several books on the art and craft of writing. They too suggest that you pick one really good GU for each substantial character. Your GU doesn’t need to be a piece of jewelry necessarily. It can be a tool, a book, a piece of clothing, a photograph … let your mind run with it. What would a villain carry? Might he have and always use the knife that killed his mother, but now uses on his victims and then cooks dinner with (a bit icky if he’s a professional chef?) Perhaps one of your characters is always biting their nails and has terrible looking hands because of that. Whatever your GU, you will find that it creates consistency in a character that is by nature a growing, changing person on a journey.
So, what color is your Green Umbrella?