Characters: The Right Tool For the Job

What’s the one tool your character does not want to do without, and would possibly dive into a burning building to grab and roll out? Or at least spend considerable time and effort replacing after the place burned to the foundations.

Know what that is, and you’ll know what your character does – not just for a living, but as part of their reason for being. Maybe it’s a specific kind of pen for writing. Maybe it’s That One Knife that makes the difference, for professions as varied as coroners and butchers. Maybe it’s a specially designed plastic prybar for lifting label stickers off shelves, sparing your poor fingernails when you might have to do hundreds of them in a single day.

Humans – most intelligent beings we can imagine – are tool-using creatures. Tools make a difference. Tools are partly technological, partly cultural; people who thatch roofs with palm leaves are going to want very different tools from those working with slate, even if the same concept of make a waterproof roof is applied. And let’s not forget the varied and bewildering variety of tools we’ve created around cultural food – everything from bread knives to chopsticks to taco racks to the titanium spork.

(If your character has a spork, consider if they’re a tech geek, a long-distance hiker, or just someone who hates doing a variety of dishes. It matters.)

A wizard’s library? Tools. An alchemist’s lab? Tools. A detective’s investigation kit? All tools – many of which might be more normal items (like tweezers, tiny vials, and magnifying glasses) repurposed in a particular way. The Imperial Coroner makes interesting use of a very large spoon….

Tools are also important as a point of story contrast when your character doesn’t have them. (As happens too often in RL emergencies.) If your character doesn’t have the right tool for the job, what can they do instead? Do they improvise a replacement; steal plastic tubing for an emergency transfusion, for example? Do they take a different approach to the problem, blowing the hinges off when they don’t have a key to the door-lock? Or do they – gulp – just die, because when you’re dropped out of an airplane at 20,000 feet without a parachute your options are very, very few?

Note that dying is always an option for Faceless Mooks and supporting characters killed off to show how very Evil a Bad Guy is. It’s not a good option for main characters, though. Readers tend to empathize with them, good or evil, and they don’t want to see any of them go down without a fight. If you absolutely have to have a main character die because they were lacking One Specific Tool, you’d better show them trying to work around it to the bitter end.

…That, and play fair with the readers by cluing them in on how important That One Tool is. Though if the setting is space and the tool is a spacesuit, one would hope that would be obvious.

Know your characters’ tools. It’ll get them – and your story – into and out of more trouble than you’d imagine!


18 thoughts on “Characters: The Right Tool For the Job

  1. There’s also different reasons they pick a given tool.

    The Favorite Tool is kind of the low-hanging fruit.
    It’s the thing most likely to jump to their mind, and the author can easily tack on whatever backstory they like no matter what it is.
    It’s also reusable, since they’ve proven once that they will go to extremes to keep it, the author can take it away any time they want to lead the character around by the nose.

    The Hard-To-Replace Tool is interesting because it might not be obvious or useful for their current situation.
    The baker might be carrying a bit of their sourdough starter, not because it’s useful but because it’s critical to rebuilding their bakery when things settle down.
    It’s a symbol of their goals and hopes, and says “this person is a baker, no matter what they happen to be doing right now.”

    It can also be a mcguffin, if other people want it.

    The Critical Tool is the “smart” option.
    When people are blindsided in an emergency, it can be very difficult to sort out “this is what I will need in the next few hours, everything else I can get later.”
    That’s why people make emergency kits, so they don’t have to think it though at the last second.
    Some of the most impressive characters I’ve seen were the ones that went for something completely mundane… that happened to be exactly what they need three steps later.
    It’s a good way to show they can think under pressure even if they aren’t normally action-guy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A rock! If you can find a stick, then you can use them to dig. Or, depending on the type of rock, fire! They could’ve found a pretty looking rock years ago, or it could have sentimental value. They’re trapped in the wilderness, and they don’t have any matches. They might toss the rock at something, and it suddenly makes sparks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Or they could use a rock as a grindstone for whatever reason. A whetstone is also a type of rock…

      Pumice can be used to remove callouses, if they have the need to disguise themselves…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “Okay, I have to ask. Of all the things you could’ve grabbed before running through the forest, why is it the 20 pound rock!?”

        “It’s the perfect rock for making other tools.”

        “It’s a rock. You can just grab one from anywhere.”

        “Oh yeah? Do you see any rocks around in this forest smart guy?”

        “No… but I’m sure they’re just under the mast.”

        “Yeah, so we can dig about a foot deep, with our hands, over the entire damn forest, looking for a rock that’s big enough, hard enough, and shaped right to do what we want. Trust me, it’s harder than you think.”

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Sam Gamgee (book version) strikes me as an excellent example here: the fact that he carries cooking gear into Mordor itself, just in case it’s needed for the return trip, says a lot about him. And when he discards his cooking kit just before the end of the journey, it’s a personal sacrifice even though he’s no longer hoping to need it again.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. If you absolutely have to have a main character die because they were lacking One Specific Tool, you’d better show them trying to work around it to the bitter end.

    Saint Vidicon of Cathode! Protect us from Murphy! (Christopher Stasheff’s creation)
    He became a saint via martyrdom, so the dead part is pretty obvious.

    He became the tool that was lacking.

    A resistor.

    The late author was a very, very geeky sort of Catholic, for tech, theology, philosophy and literature; I suspect that the seed of that story was “How do you die to spread the Word when it’s being broadcast, rather than walking up to an unfriendly town?”

    …the result was AWESOME.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Then, of course, she would need bone. And tools to work it, or wood. (She could probably get wood if she had those tools.)

        Plus of course the skill set.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Over on another board, a US Army vet once talked about his favorite tool while in service. It wasn’t a gun, or even technically a weapon.

    It was a Soviet Combat Shovel a relative gifted him with. Looking things up, probably this one:

    Entrenching tool, axe, weapon at last ditch, and even supposedly made a good field expedient frying pan. He said he was rather mad when someone stole it from his foot locker.

    Turning this to fantasy adventurers? Their weapons are important, but they might prize some mundane tool or set of spells that offer comfort and utility in a compact and light weight package. Like soldiers getting the most out of the least bulk and weight is important when you have to carry it everywhere.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If backpacking taught me anything, it was that *weight* was one of the most important factors when traveling. “Enchantment of Weight Reduction” or any similar spell would be one of the first things I made sure I’d know how to cast reliably.

      Of course, the fabled Bag of Holding kinda renders a lot of issues moot… including weight and space concerns…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, and back packing teaches you how heavy water is.

        My brother and a buddy of his went to Philmont Scout Ranch. Lots of backpacking on a trip there. Weight did come up. For example the food, what was eaten was the heaviest stuff, in terms of weight, first. Anyone disagreed? “Okay, you get to carry it tomorrow.” One of the scouts brought a small folding camp stool. Caught some crap for packing the ‘unnecessary weight’, but got some envious looks while using it when they finished setting up camp for the day.

        As for the Bag of Holding? Sure you have all your stuff in there. But how easily can you find the one item you need. Or pull out something you stuff in there years ago and forgot about rather than the item you really need.

        Liked by 1 person

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