How often has this happened in a book you’re reading: A character has encountered a deadly creature. They can’t run because the creature is too fast. They try ducking out of the way but they can’t do that forever. They throw stones but that just enrages the beast even more. Just when all seems hopeless, they pull out a sword from their belt and…Wait, since when did that character have a sword? That was never mentioned before!
Even worse is when the character is in the middle of a fight, and you, the reader, know they have some kind of weapon or object that would flatten the enemy in a second. But the fight scene just goes on and on but it never appears. You spend the entire scene screaming at the book ‘Just use it, you idiot!’ but they never do. Either the battle is won by random chance or an ally is killed in the process.
You can avoid this in your own writing by keeping an inventory of everything that your character has with them on their journey, like the inventory screen in a videogame, and a record of when they pick things up and when they leave things behind. If you don’t then it is easy to make errors like the ones I mentioned above and your readers will notice.
The way I keep my character’s inventories is fairly simple. I make a document and mark out every chapter when the characters are on their journey. I list the things that each character has when their journey starts and in which chapters they lose or acquire new things. I also consider what bags they have and how much they can carry at any one time. If a character left home with only the clothes on their back then they won’t be able to fit much in their pockets. If they have a horse with them then they can load up on much more. It’s as simple as that. I always have a reference to check when I’m writing. If you’re more of a visual thinker then you could make a collage or vision board of your characters inventory instead. Experiment a little and find what works best for you.
Much of the time, the acquisition or using up of equipment will happen off page. You’re not going to describe every time your characters go to the marketplace or stop for a snack. That would make for a very boring novel. If you keep a timeline of how much time passes within and between each chapter of your novel then you can use this with your inventory document to list what things were used up or bought during these intervals.
Be careful that you don’t fall victim to the videogame logic which says you can carry dozens of everything in your bags. It may work in Pokemon but it doesn’t work in reality, or indeed in a novel. Don’t have your characters do what they do in games either and pick up every useless thing they find in the hopes that it might be useful later or be sold for pennies at the next shop. Do you pick up every twig and mushroom when you go for a walk in the forest?
Then again, maybe this does fit some characters personalities. The items your character carries can also be used to say something about them. If you want to show that a character is fussy and overly organised then describe them carrying a huge bag containing everything they could ever need, but probably won’t. If you want a character to be scatter-brained or ill-prepared for their adventure, show them carrying useless items or forgetting the essentials for their quest. Do any of your characters carry or wear items purely for sentimental reasons? (E.g. Katniss’ Mockingjay pin in The Hunger Games which becomes very important later on.)
Finally, don’t forget to also keep track of the amount of money in your character’s purse. You keep a close eye on how much money you have in real life, don’t you? If your character lives in a society that uses bartering instead of currency, how will that affect what they carry?
It’s something that is often overlooked, but these few simple tricks can help you avoid embarrassing errors in your novel, make the writing easier for yourself, and help you to visualise your novel and engage with its world and characters.