Conveying Emotion Through a Powerful Object

 Today the Tollbooth welcomes writer Mary Cronin who posts about the emotional significance that two objects possess for the main character of her work-in-progress. 

“What if there’s no novel yet?” That was my main question when I won November’s “Fantastic Tollbooth  Contest” hosted by VCFA faculty member Garret Freymann-Wehr. Garret had asked for entries about an object of emotional significance to a character. My entry, about a boy named Tom and some of his beautiful treasures, was chosen as the winner.

But there’s no novel. Yet. A title, yes. Tomfoolery. And a notebook.

I’m a huge fan of pre-writing. So I have a notebook filled with character sketches and maps and anecdotes and family trees. About Tom, his best friends, his feisty grandmother, his itinerant musician mother, his job in a vintage clothing store. Most importantly, I know what Tom lacks.

Some of the college courses I teach in Early Childhood Education feed directly into my writing.


So I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out what assets my character has in his life, and what he lacks. Maslow’s Hierarchy serves as an inventory of sorts, about areas of strength in a character’s life, but especially about areas of need—what I think of as the “pot holes” in a character’s life. Using this tool, I can pinpoint those pot holes (basic needs like shelter?  A sense of belonging?), and how my protagonist has attempted to fill those pot holes. Have the “patches” been successful, or not?

Once I truly understand these things about my character,  I have compassion for him. And when I write from a place of compassion, the words flow.


I picked up a swizzle stick a few years ago when I had the best gin and tonic ever at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Some time last year, I stuck that swizzle stick in my pencil case. I knew it was important to Tom, just like the tea tin with the picture of Princess Kate on it that sits in my kitchen cabinet.

tea tin

I knew this because Tom lacks his mother, and Tom longs for beauty in the way a young artistic soul thirsts for it when he is deprived of loveliness. The beauty, the glamour, the royalty: these are the patches he has used to try and fill the empty place his mother left behind, the “pot hole” in his sense of security. Once I know what my character longs for, I begin to understand what objects might have almost magical meaning for him. And there was that lovely swizzle stick.

I encourage all the writers I work with to use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand their characters, just as I advise my teachers-in-training to use it as a tool to understand the needs and motivations of their young students.

Thanks to Through the Tollbooth, and Garrett, a little bit of fairy dust was sprinkled on my Tomfoolery notebook, which will indeed grow into a novel.

I think Tom would approve.

Mary E. Cronin


Mary E. Cronin graduated from VCFA in January 2011. A resident of Cape Cod, she teaches Early Childhood Ed. and English at two Massachusetts colleges. Mary is currently revising her middle-grade time travel novel and polishing a few picture book manuscripts; Tomfoolery is waiting in the wings. 


4 thoughts on “Conveying Emotion Through a Powerful Object”

  1. Jim Hill says:

    This is wonderful, Mary. I’ll be applying it to my WIP. Thorn has so many pot holes. Thanks!

    1. Mary says:

      Thanks, night owl Jim. Had I known, we could have been messaging during my own bout of insomnia!

  2. Pamela Ross says:

    Mary: Your essay so deftly captures how you approach your art and how it works for you. I have never heard of the Maslow Approach but it sounds like a perfect way to discover parts of hour story that need filled, even if all of the discoveries are only known to you as the author.

    Thank you for swizzling ideas in my cup of unwritten words tonight.

  3. Mary says:

    Thank you, Pam! I think you will like playing with Maslow’s Hierarchy… it’s the perfect way to go deep into your character’s emotional background.

Comments are closed.