It’s been the mainstay of many a book for small children – Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the biggest sellers of all time. But adult writers use inanimate objects as well. Christine, by Stephen King, is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, even though you know the premise is totally impossible. A murderous car that reassembles itself every time someone tries to smash it up? How does a car like that think? What does it want, and why? Things with wheels or legs make the best characters, as they’re potentially mobile. It’s quite difficult to be convincing about a naughty watering can that gets the urge to wet people’s feet every so often, or a large stone that has a severe case of depression. Terry Pratchett got around it by giving one of his best non-speaking characters feet. The Luggage is a wonderfully comic creation; read about it here.
And as with all stories, it’s what motivates the characters that really matters, and as we have no idea how watering can or a boulder might think, we’re free to let our imaginations run riot. I’ve experimented with sentient coat-stands and chairs, both of which have feet, and it’s fun. Of course, magic helps enormously…
“You’re so lucky, living here,” said Mattie’s friend Bryony. The two of them were sitting in the porch to get away from the rain, watching the stone statues pulling each other’s hair and kicking one another on the shins. “I wish I had a greeting-chair that ran to meet me when I got home from school.”
“Sometimes it gallops off with me instead,” Mattie pointed out, “and tips me into the fountain.”
Mattie sighed, and went to get her coat. The coat-stand, which was made of the very best eldritch-ebony, had been in an argumentative mood. “It’s going to rain again later,” it told her, in its I-know-best voice. “You’re not going out without boots, an umbrella and that nice thick winter raincoat.”
“But it’s summer!” Mattie had protested.
“I think you’ll find I’m older and wiser than you, child,” said the coat-stand patronisingly. “It can get quite cold in June. I’m not opening the front door until you do as I say.”
The fun part is trying to imagine what actually matters to these characters. Clearly, a coat-stand performs a particular function, so caring about clothing and the weather works well. To make it funny you need to exaggerate it, though. You can also make your inanimate object behave out of character – statues traditionally are rather austere, so having them thump each other and pull one another’s hair turns them into spiteful children. As with every character, give it a hobby or an obsession and it springs to life. And the more inappropriate the hobby, the better.
Have a look around you. What could you animate? A coffee cup that hates tea? A printer that has a mind its own? A camera that takes pictures when no one’s looking? There are endless possibilities…