Wednesday, June 7, 2023

How to Develop the Characters You Write into Well-rounded People

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

What's in Your Character's Wallet?

You’ve probably seen that credit card commercial where a celebrity looks straight into the camera and implies that, if you don’t have a certain card in your wallet, you’re somehow missing out. 

But think of it another way—what exactly does your wallet/purse have in it? Why? And what does it say about you?

Creating characters, deep, complex, well-rounded characters, can be accomplished in many ways, but one of my favorites is to show what they keep nearest to them. Even though the male persuasion-type may not carry a purse, they can stuff a lot of very personal items into a small space. So, let’s play with some options!

1. Pictures

Nowadays, we mostly keep our pictures on our phones but in my grandfather’s day, he carried a picture of my grandmother from when they first met. I only saw it once because he wasn’t an emotional man—short on words, long on silence—but I think it spoke volumes as to how much he really loved her. 

Even if it’s on a cell phone, whose picture would be first? A spouse? A child or children? Maybe a place that means a lot? We can more easily see these things on someone’s social media now but I think that a Facebook photo takes away some of the intimacy. What photos would your protagonist keep close? 

And what would that mean to him or her? Would that character look at the photo in an emotional time? Why? For comfort? For courage? For nostalgia?

2. Letters/papers

I still have the letter where my late husband first told me he loved me. I don’t carry it in my wallet—it’s much too precious—and it means the world to me. What items would your character want to save? Maybe she’s on the run and can only keep the most treasured items safe. Maybe his child was kidnapped and the only thing he has left is a picture his boy drew. How would these characters FEEL when they saw the letter/drawing in their wallet/purse? Would it make them happy? Or very, very sad?

3. Money

Even how much money a person carries can tell you a lot about them. My father-in-law always had a pocket full of bills wrapped in a rubber band. It was mostly ones, but I’ve seen him riffle through the wad and pull out a couple of larger denominations. He also tucked at least one hundred-dollar bill in his wallet. Quickly available cash was very important to him. On the other hand, I rarely carry cash. Not because I don’t have enough but because I just don’t pay much attention to it. It doesn’t matter because there’s always that blue card or a nearby bank where I can get cash if I need it. 

What would that say about a character? One with cash in their wallet probably would be very well prepared for any emergency but one with limited ways of purchasing things may not be. How could that situation play out in a scene, especially if one needs cash and the other won’t give it to her, even though she knows he has it?

4. Personal items 

Of course, a purse has a lot more room in it than the average wallet. But what type of personal items would your character need? And what would that item tell you, and your reader? 

Some women carry makeup for instance, or at least a lipstick. But maybe a different character wouldn’t have any at all. 

So, let’s put this to the test. Pretend you’re sitting across the table from your character and ask them to empty their purse, wallet, and pockets out. You can ask for their cell phone too, since the videos they’ve been watching can also tell you a lot. Sort through everything in your mind. What’s there? And why?

What if her purse is only a tiny crossover bag just big enough for an iPad and a couple of tissues and maybe a wallet for the id and credit cards? What if his wallet is thick enough to cause him back pain? What would they have “on top” where they could reach it easily and what would they have tucked away in the most private place possible? And why?

Ultimately, you’ll probably not use much, if any, of the items in your story. But how much fascinating information can you glean from such a simple exercise?

What’s in YOUR character’s wallet? 


Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or


  1. Such a practical way to get to know my character. Thanks.

  2. What a great post, Sally! This one is going into my writer's toolbox!

  3. An excellent post, Sally. Never really thought of this. Gonna do this for my sleuth AND his client, who have not yet come to trust each other fully. Thanks.
    Jay Wright - Upstate SC

    1. Absolutely! I can even see your "Sherlock" watching the client dig through her purse and telling her everything about her because of what she carries. Just sayin'. :)

  4. Got me thinking. My kids say Bag Balm is the fragrance of their childhood because I carry a tube in my purse and pocket for lip gloss. And I'm going to have a character carry a passport always which can only mean ...

    1. LOL!! And the passport can tell us SO much about a character!

  5. Great question, Sally. I need to have a talk with some of my characters!

    1. We all do. Knowing more about them is the path to amazing characters. Thanks!

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post about developing characters in writing, and I must say, your insights have inspired me to approach my own storytelling with a renewed sense of purpose.
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