Recently a popular and relatively young man in the Theater Department died of a heart attack. No one saw it coming. The Theater Department majors at Cornell College were given the job of putting on a memorial service. It was interesting to me to see these actors pay tribute to their beloved teacher. As word person, I expected eulogies, comments, maybe even some quotes from some famous plays.

But much of what they did was without words: silently painted an owl on a large sheet by dipping their hands in buckets of paint, to stand for their teacher’s love of owls; turned off all the lights and danced to rock music holding six-inch light sticks, expressing I’m not sure what—perhaps joy in a life well lived (this man received a law degree in 1978, in 1981 he quit the law and went back to his first love—theater). In one little skit two women were dressed in elaborate costume by two other “dressers,” without a word.

The service was very moving. But for a writer everything comes back to writing (How narrow! Sorry.) and it made me wonder if we might find in all this another way into defining our characters. Could we simplify the task so we weren’t writing skits but just ask what one or two objects would stand for our characters—for George B. Schaller, the wildlife biologist in the chiru story, a notebook perhaps, stuck into a pair of hiking boots; for my new character who’s good with gizmos—a jack-in-the box taken apart and reconstructed, balanced on a couple of screwdrivers.

What’s the best collection for a character you’ve been carrying around for a while?