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Drive My Car: Exploring Your Character's Means Of Transportation And What This Says About Them

Updated on March 25, 2017

I’ve seen the iconic 1980s movie “Ferris Buellar’s Day Off” more times than I can count. There are many reason I love this movie: Charlie Sheen’s character; the scenes inside the Chicago Institute of Art; and, of course, the red 1961 Ferrari GT250 they drive without permission. The car is so essential, in my opinion, to this movie that it is almost its own separate character. It helps make the film what it is, and, had a less flashy car been chosen instead—like a rusty, dented 1975 Toyota Camry—the film would have been both less believable and enjoyable.

While this is an example from a movie and not a book or story, my point remains: Carefully decide what kind of transportation your character uses. It is, in one sense, all about feasibility. If your character is a tight-fisted, conservative, and unsmiling housewife from the 1950s, for example, she is unlikely to be driving a bright blue 1950 Impala convertible with leather seats. Similarly, if your character is a hot-shot doctor who wants to display his success and wealth at every opportunity, it isn’t believable if he is drives a hulking and outdated Ford pickup.

It’s also important to consider whether your character would have the means or any reason to have a car of his or her own. For example, a sixteen year old living in London, England seems less likely to own a car than a sixteen year old who lives in rural Kansas. It is also less likely that the character living in rural Kansas would use much public transportation, whereas a resident of London may use the tube, their subway system, on a daily basis.

What is your character driving?

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For your characters who drive cars, consider exactly why they are driving this particular vehicle over another. If the car does not suit their personality and life circumstances, it is your job as the writer to determine why. For example, a man who just lost most of his money in an ugly divorce settlement may be forced to get a cheaper, less attractive car out of sheer financial necessity. Or, in the case of a young woman inheriting a barely used car from her grandmother, this is one instance in which it doesn’t seem odd that a teenage girl is driving a twenty-year-old silver Buick LeSabre instead of something smaller, newer, and more stylish.

Certain characters will believe their personality is directly expressed in what they drive. This could be expressed in a tree-hugging, earth-protecting man with dreadlocks who drives a (sometimes working) 1968 Volkswagen van with Grateful Dead decals on the back window. Another example of this would be a successful lawyer who drives a sleek, spotlessly clean black Audi. These are extreme, almost cliché examples, yet they are offered to help you think about what your character drives and why.

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Another way your character’s personality can be expressed is by how clean, orderly, dirty, and disorderly the inside and outside of their vehicle is. An irresponsible teenage boy driving a 1994 Pontiac Bonneville, for example, seems much more likely to have fast food wrappers, empty pop bottles, and other trash in his car. Yet, under the right circumstances, an otherwise fastidious character who typically keeps a clean car will accumulate trash. These circumstances could involve great personal stress, inviting a messy friend on a road trip, and so forth.

Another thing worth considering is how often the character is alone in his or her vehicle, and how they act when alone. Do they sing along to the radio or their favorite CDs? Or listen to books on CD? Wolf down fast food while driving too fast? Talk to themselves? Or are they silent and serious?

The music a character listens to in his or her vehicle—or while in transit using public transportation—can be very telling. Whether your character listens to hymns sung by Elvis Presley or only classic rock bands such as Queen and Poison, it is important to have an idea why these particular songs or musical genres appeals to the character. Often the reason is rooted in the character’s past, and there are often wonderful backstory opportunities to explore based on what may otherwise seem like an inconsequential detail. For example, a character who listens almost exclusively to country music may have had a favorite aunt who would always play country music when they went to the store together, and the fond memories of these excursions helps fuel a continued love of country music. Or it could be a less positive story: An ex-boyfriend or girlfriend who, though self-involved and uncaring overall, introduced the character to a new band or genre of music they fell instantly in love with despite the less than ideal circumstances surrounding the introduction.

The Ferrari in "Ferris Buellar's Day Off"

Whether your characters use their own vehicles, public transportation, or even walk to their destinations, it is important to know how the area around them smells. Such smells can be subtle, obvious, or in-between, and it is helpful to avoid clichés such as “the air smelled like stale cigarette smoke” when describing these smells. It may also be useful if the character occasionally doesn’t even know what a particular smell is, as this can lead to entertaining speculation along the lines of, “Who has been in my car?” or “Do I smell a dead animal or really bad perfume?”

Much of what you know about your character and how he or she gets somewhere may never make it onto the page. This doesn’t mean the research isn’t worth doing, however. This research can even be diverting because one way to think about what your character drives—or the other transportation being used—is to think about the vehicles (including buses and trains) you’ve driven or rode in over the years and how you would describe these in a fictional context. It’s essential to remember that there is ample room to describe what you find noteworthy on the inside and outside of a vehicle. While another person may focus more on the cheesy bumper stickers—such as one which reads “Imagine Whirled Peas”—you may rather describe the stacks of CDs inside the car or even the strange necklace dangling from the rear-view mirror and the story behind this. Still another writer may want to focus on the events that have happened in this particular vehicle—including shy kisses, arguments, or a cross-country road trip with a close friend—instead of describing the interior in great detail.

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It’s also important to know whether or not your character owns the vehicle they are driving, or if they are making payments and will own it soon, or if they are leasing a vehicle and will replace it with a new car in another year. Or even if the character has inherited the car.

Moreover, if a character once own a vehicle and then totaled it or lost it under other circumstances, this information may help you better understand your character. One example of how this detail could be included in a story is if the character, who now must walk or take public transportation, always notices when the exact make, model, and color of his or her former car drives by.

Regardless how you approach this area of a character’s development, please remember that a well-chosen and believable vehicle choice can, just as it did in “Ferris Buellar’s Day Off,” elevate the plot to another level.

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