Possessions – do you own them, or do they own you? Tools or trophies? Status symbol or frippery? How people acquire and use or adore their possessions can tell the reader many things about the character – their background, current wealth and even their philosophical beliefs.

Keeping stuff is a very human trait. Who hasn’t been for a walk and collected a small rock or feather or interesting leaf? We can be assured that items such as these would have been found in the hands of hunter gatherers. Jean Auel imagines neanderthal dress hides with folds to produce handy pockets, and I can imagine that outside of warmth, the need for pockets may have been a driving factor for gathering. Using your clothes would be easier than making a basket. But we can see in burials that possessions where so important they would be needed in the afterworld, in whatever form that may take. Necklaces, tools, weapons and beaded clothes were all found in burials, and gave an indication of the status of the person and the wealth of the community that they could afford to lose such treasured items.

But while today we are absolutely (at least in the western world) inundated with stuff, for most of the past that has not been the case. Hunter gatherers would not be able to carry a great deal, for instance. Ayla leaves her tribe with very little stuff – her clothes, a hide blanket, a little food and her sling weapon. But even on the edge of survival she takes the hide her baby slept in, her medicine pouch and her amulet bag that is her connection to the spirit world. Possessions that were as necessary to survival as a sharp tool or the means to make fire. These things made her human.

In a similar vein, Tolkien has his characters take very long journeys, Bilbo even leaving without his pocket handkerchief. This little thing he missed as a reminder of the familiar and perhaps even a guard for the changes and danger he was going towards. By the end he had replaced all he had set out with, as well as changing himself in the process. Possessions and the comforts of home were important to hobbits more so than any other character. Aragorn probably carried all he possessed – a rolled blanket, a sword, blades and maybe a little food. Yet he treasured the gauntlets of Boromir, and the necklace of Arwen. Even Strider’s harsh life had room for sentiment. On Frodos’s return to the Shire, Bag End and its possessions seemed strange – for a very different hobbit had returned. Both Smaug and Gollum are lessons in the problems that a desire for things can cause.

So could one discard all the stuff today and roam the world free? People do – in small vans, in travelling, and taking up minimalism. In the prepper community the idea even has a name – to Bug Out. To take your backpack (full of helpful things) and survive in the wilderness. What does this say about a person that they are unfettered by stuff? Many religious orders give up all worldly goods to join, or camp in a forest with nothing but a robe and faith. The accumulation of stuff is a sin, a crass commercial desire that separated one from a higher plain. Arrogance deems valueless the humble cheerfulness of your Grandma’s crochet blanket. And yet, at the end, we cannot take it with us – and without the memory alive a treasure becomes junk.

Then there is the flip side of minimalism – that of hoarding. Where possessions have without doubt taken over the heart and soul. Where possessions are reminders of the past, and a guard against the future. But it’s not all just people collecting rubbish – one could argue that wealthy mansions with a wardrobe of unworn thousand dollar shoes is worse – it’s just more socially acceptable as it grants status. Can either end of the spectrum give it away? The valuing of possessions over people is a dark area, and worth exploring.

But what of the future? Scifi – involving as it does space travel – often limits the baggage for weight limits. The treasured scout shirt in Heinlein’s ‘Farmer in the Sky’ – the character didn’t eat that day so he could get under the weight limit, yet gladly sacrificed his shirt to plug a hole when the ship was holed by a meteorite. Will the future show we have outgrown our possessions and strive to fill the mind with knowledge? Or will we travel the stars still dragging an antique book or some trinket that reminds us of home?

Even if all the doomsayers are right – and we face a world of destruction, of the darkness of the end of the world, possessions will be important. The finding of an abandoned house with toys is a reminder of all that was lost. A backpack of scavenged food and gear might be the only thing holding off death or insanity. A library of lost books maybe the key to the future.

How a character treats their possessions can show a great deal. Careless because they were born rich? How does that make others feel? Accumulate too many things and save wrapping paper because they were born poor? Just remember, it’s not hoarding if it’s books – you can never have too many, to read and to give away or to keep and treasure.

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World Building: Possessions
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