Friday, April 25, 2014

What’s in Your Pockets?

Or in your backpack? Or hanging from your belt?

We all remember a scene from a television show or book when a character just happens to have an important item necessary to solve a problem in his or her pocket, don’t we? The Doctor with his sonic screwdriver or psychic paper or strange bit of metal that he happened to pick up along the way. No, wait, that was MacGyver that spent the first part of the show picking up odd bits of things that he would later pull out of his pack and assemble into something. Batman may not have pockets, but he sure manages to carry quite a number of useful items in his utility belt.

I don’t remember having pockets of infinite capacity when I was young, but those would have come in handy. I remember having all sorts of useful stuff – gum, pretty stones (seriously, check my post on collecting. I collected a lot of stones), pocket knife, tissue-wrapped interesting dead bugs (had to wrap them in tissue otherwise the legs broke off), string, a slingshot at one point, rubber bands, money occasionally, a house key on those times when someone wasn't going to be in the house when my sister and I got home – as well as things that maybe weren't so useful or fascinating when pockets were emptied at the end of the day.

A character in a Middle Grade story could have any or all of those items in his or her pockets. Maybe an item might be important to the story or they could be just interesting indicators of the character's personality. If this was a YA story, something in the character’s pockets (if mentioned at all in the story) would have to be important in some way. Otherwise the contents of the pockets (or purse or backpack) won’t be mentioned at all. Since time is limited, a television program might only have a brief glimpse of stuff, but only an important item would be shown in focus.

If a YA or Middle Grade story is set in present day, one item that would probably be necessary would be a phone of some sort. It does reduce tension if the character can contact his or her parents or help of some type so easily, so characters tend to lose or break that item a lot.

One major complaint I have about women’s clothing (and girls’) is the lack of pockets. Of course women don’t need pockets, the fashion industry insists, they carry purses. Pockets are important. My work clothes had to have pockets and I heavily used my jacket pockets (for keys, sticky notes, pens, flash drive and tissues, all necessary in my job). Maybe the need for pockets is why lab coats are so popular among mad scientists.

My character Peter in The Crystal Throne had his Scout knife and a small roll of duct tape in his pockets when he was pulled into a magical land and both items came in handy later. The items my injured agent in “The Twin Bond” (Agents & Adepts) finds in her pockets don't initially register with her (she's lost her memory), but she automatically reaches for them when her memory returns.

Harry Potter is lucky enough to be set in a time where wizard/school robes have pockets that can hold a wand and other items. My wizards carry a lot of pouches on their belts with magical ingredients.

The main character in the story I’m currently working on wants to become an explorer. So she carries a number of items in her pockets in order to test whatever she comes across outside in her neighborhood. Though I'm beginning to think that some might need to be carried in her backpack. I started with pocket magnifier, magnet, small multi-tool, and specimen bags, but I have a feeling the character will add more as the story goes on.

What stories have you come across where pockets or the contents of them turn out to be important? And yes, that also includes purses and backpacks.


  1. Joanna is my favorite fantasy heroine. She is the main character in Barbara Hambly's out-of-print trilogy" The Silent Tower; The Silicon Mage; Dog Wizard. Early in The Silent Tower, Joanna is attacked late at night where she works. Here's a tiny extract, "And he attacked you with this?" The guard held up the hammer, protected from his hand by a handerchief and gripped by the very end of the handle.
    Joanna blushed. "No," she said, feeling very foolish. "I had that in my purse."
    The guard cast a startled glance at her purse, then saw the size of it and nodded at least partial understaning...
    Hambly provides a partial list of the purse's contents later: Swiss Army knife, several tin & plastic boxes, a measuring tape, scissors, calculator, wallet, checkbook, keys, notebook, mirror, spare toothbrush, tube of sunscreen, collapsible drinking cup, Granola bars, rubber bands, safwty pins, a lipstick she never used, a bundle of plastic-coated wires she's gotten from plant maintenance, three & a half pairs of earrings, and two floppy disks. (written in 1986)
    SherryT /

  2. One thing I often have to point out to newbie historical fiction authors is that pockets are relatively new on the scene--don't assume your character would even have them until you've done the research!

    But yes, the question of what little items the character has is very useful, not only in terms of the resources available to the character, but also in terms of character development.


  3. Haha! Your article brings back memories. I can't think of a story about pockets, but when I was in the second grade, I think it was, I walked to school across a vacant lot where little horned toads roamed. For some reason those lizards fascinated me, so I'd sometimes pick one up, put it in my pocket and take it to school. I remember feeding it part of my lunch, not knowing of course that they only ate red ants. I don't remember what my mother thought about the food in my pockets, but she must have been surprised. :)