Hoyt keeps a blue crystal ruined by the attempts at carving it in the lining of his coat, and woe betide the person who finds it and tries to take it away. Manar carries a little yarn doll, barely as long as her finger, on a string about her neck. One person might tuck a normal-looking stone in her pocket on days when she’s feeling stressed, another wear a certain pin for special events. All of these items are talismans, little keepsakes kept around either for their personal symbolic value or because the holder believes, rightly or wrongly, that there is power to them. Even today, people tend to treat items this way—and whether we’re dealing with this world or another, we can use these talismans to increase the distinctiveness of and provide context for our characters.
In some worlds, the talisman actually does have power because of what it is; in some, people only believe it does. Often these sorts of talismans are small stones of specific kinds, little bundles of herbs and small decorative items—in short, things that are crafted or chosen specifically to be talismans. They often don’t look like they have any use whatsoever beyond the ornamental, but on the plus side, they’re usually if not pretty than at least well made, and likely both.
Other people carry their talismans as a memento of other people they’ve known. Gifts with emotional value often serve as talismans—though these are sometimes useful in other ways, usually they’re chosen for being small and portable, and thus possible to take everywhere. Interestingly, unless it was a particularly special holiday you don’t often see birthday or appropriate gift-giving holiday presents as talismans; it’s likelier to be a just-because or between occasions gift. For instance, while I’m grateful for and understand the attempted emotional significance of the mp3 player my stepmother got me for my last birthday, if I want to carry something that feels connected to her, I’m likelier to pin on the otter brooch she gave me before I went to Oakland for my first real library job. But sometimes a talisman isn’t a gift but a remnant (physical or metaphorical) of the person in question, like an ash pendant. Every now and then it’s both, often because it started as the first kind and later became the second.
Then there are the people whose talismans are mementos of their younger selves and signs of their progress. You often hear about entrepreneurs framing the first dollar they earned, or craftsmen who have their first piece (or their journeyman project, or what have you) somewhere in their workshop. This both serves as a way to keep in touch with one’s inner youngster and to see how far one has gone since then.
Some people’s talismans are reminders not of other people, but of events. They might have picked it up on a particularly memorable trip, taken it as a trophy during an important fight, had it fall into their hands at a time when a sign of some sort was needed—but whatever they are, these sorts of talismans are inextricably tied to something that character wants to remember.
While I’ve mostly been talking about talismans of things that a person wants to remember, some talismans come from things that person doesn’t want to forget. These are negative but important memories, most often stories of old failures or awful decisions the talisman’s holder doesn’t want to repeat. Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and the talisman is in this case a charm against repeating the past.
Though most talismans are small and mostly ornamental, some people ascribe talisman-level significance to a larger or functional item. Maybe a warrior’s favorite weapon was a gift from a respected mentor, or a craftsman’s tools ones that she won in the contest that set off her career. Even these talismans are usually things that the owner can reasonably keep with her; after all, the piano sitting in your main room may provide memories, but they tend not to be near as strong unless you’re sitting at it and playing, don’t they?
The talisman, and why the character carries it and not something else, not only serves as a source of characterization but can be used to make a character distinctive and memorable. Have you given any to your characters?