How to Unlock the Potential of Transportation in Fiction

“Money may not buy happiness, but I'd rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”

Françoise Sagan

It’s funny to think that something as pedestrian as a character’s preferred mode of transportation could offer any inspiration or insight. Does it really matter if they ride their bike everywhere or drive a gigantic pick-up truck or refuse to go anywhere they can’t walk to?

It may seem insignificant, but the kind of transportation your character uses affects their independence (how much autonomy do they have to do what they need or want to do, when they need or want to do it?), and if all of your characters move about in the same way all the time, it’ll start feeling samey. That’s not even taking into account places in the world and eras in history when things like gender, race, and class dictate the modes of transportation used.

Knowing the modes of transportation used by your characters (the main ones, at the very least) helps bring order to the story world while also providing ample opportunity for writerly mischief, and goodness knows that's where half the fun is. ^_~

What form of transportation do they use most often?

For a contemporary story, your character could use a:

  • bus
  • bike
  • car
  • mobility aid
  • train
  • subway
  • motorbike
  • van
  • skateboard
  • unicycle
  • scooter
  • horse (hey, it works on Heartland! ^_~)
  • motorhome

For a historical and/or fantasy story, your character might use a:

  • horse
  • camel
  • covered wagon
  • caravan
  • mythical creature (e.g. dragon or griffin)
  • magic carpet
  • pirate ship
  • broomstick
  • turtle
  • horse-drawn carriage
  • vintage automobile

Science fiction offers even more possibilities, like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars or the transport tubes in Babylon 5.

For All Modes of Transportation

How often does your character use this form of transportation? Is it an everyday kind of thing or only when they can’t get somewhere by walking (which could be often or rarely, depending where they live and how physically capable they are)?

If this mode of transportation were unexpectedly out of commission, how would your character cope? What would they use instead? Would it spoil any plans? Is it a blessing in disguise?

What does your character use this form of transportation for? Is it purely for utilitarian purposes or do they use it for fun, too? How about road trips? Pizza deliveries? Taking a friend to chemo? Getting some exercise? Sneaking out after curfew?

How does this mode of transportation affect the way others treat your character? Someone with a car might be the go-to person in their circle of friends for rides. Someone young or seemingly able-bodied with a mobility aid might unjustly attract dirty looks from people who think they don’t actually need one.

For Leased or Owned Modes of Transportation

Note: Some of these questions apply to both sentient and non-sentient modes of transportation. Others are decidedly one-sided.

Where did they get it from? New at a dealership? Secondhand through an online ad? From a friend of a friend? As a hand-me-down? Abandoned at the side of the road?

Did the receipt of this mode of transportation mean something significant at the time? For example, was it their first car? Was it their first big purchase? Was it the first contract they signed? Was it their first joint asset with a partner? Was it a make they’d always dreamed of getting?

When it comes to transportation, is your character more likely to constantly upgrade to the newest model, stick with the old so long as it works (and maybe even beyond), or somewhere in between?

Does this form of transportation belong solely to your character or do they share it with anyone? If so, who? Is it a community car share? Do they share it with their partner/parents/siblings/teenage kids? Are they the sole owner but often find themselves transporting other people, too?

What does this form of transportation look like? Is it covered in decals? Does it have a basket on the front to hold fresh-cut flowers? Are there panniers to carry groceries? Is it grimy or clean? Is it free of scratches or does it look like it’s been attacked by porcupines?

How would people be most likely to describe it? Intimidating? Adorable? Simple? Classy? Powerful?

How well maintained is it? How often does it break down? Does your character stay on top of maintenance or do they forget until something goes wrong? Is it an older model with parts that are getting more and more difficult to replace? Does your character do (any) repairs themselves?

How far can your character go with this mode of transportation? How much of the world does it open up for them?

Are there any special memories associated with this form of transportation? On the show Heartland, for example, Ty’s truck holds a lot of memories for both him and Amy. In an earlier season, they dance in the back of the truck when it breaks down on the way to her prom; in a much later season, they dance in the back of it again, but those who have seen the episode will know they're not alone this time.

For Sentient Modes of Transportation

What sort of relationship does your character have with this being (or beings)? Is it more like a symbiotic partnership, a bond of love and/or friendship, a boss-and-servant dynamic, or something strictly utilitarian? How far would one go for the other, and vice versa?

How does this being communicate with your character? Is it capable of speech?

Does your character take care of the being, perhaps by providing food and board? Does someone else do it for them? Is the being capable of providing for themselves?

How much autonomy does this being have? Do they have any say in where and when they go? Are there times when this being disappears on their own adventures or with other characters, or are they always available to this character?

There are so many questions and dynamics you can explore with fiction, even with something so seemingly mundane as your character’s primary mode of transportation. This is just a taste of how you can use the ordinary to liven up your story. ^_^ If you keep track of characters in your bullet journal, this is another great thing to add to a character spread.