We all know what props are. Charlie Chaplin had his hat and cane, Maxwell Smart had his shoe phone, and Harry Potter had his wand. A prop can be anything at all - clothes, food, tools, animals, even another person. If it exists in your character’s world, then it can be used as a prop.
The most obvious use for a prop is to tell us what your character does. Harry’s wand lets the reader know he’s a wizard, so we can expect to see some magic. The kind of wand he has also tells us what kind of person he is. Harry’s wand is sturdy and strong and similar to Lord Voldemort’s, so we can expect it to be powerful, which makes him powerful. Ron’s wand, on the other hand, is a hand-me-down, and at one point, broken and taped back together. We don’t expect any serious magic to come from it, or Ron. Ron’s wand relegates him to sidekick and comic relief status.
How your character treats their prop also discloses information. A teen-age girl with a brand new hot pink cell phone might spend more time wiping her fingerprints off the phone than using it, or she might toss it wherever when she’s not using it. A poor child living in a home with a broken window stuffed with newspaper might complain about it, live with it, or try to fix it. Each option creates a different type of character.
Props also help create emotion in your story, and in your reader. Let’s say Jack has been stuck in detention for something he didn’t do. When he finally gets out, he misses the bus home and has to walk. It starts to rain. Every step makes him madder and more aggravated. He reaches home and checks the mailbox for an invitation to Tommy’s pool party. It isn’t there and he realizes he hasn’t been invited. He opens the door and sacks out on the couch and thinks about what a lousy day he had. Pete was a jerk for getting him in trouble, and Mrs. White was unfair in giving him detention, and why’d it have to rain anyway.
What is Jack feeling in this scene? Well, he might be mad or he might be feeling sad, or disappointed. It isn’t quite clear. And what did you feel reading it? Probably not a whole lot.
Now add a prop. We’ll give him a dog. So now, after all his travails, he opens the door and there’s his dog, tongue lolling, tail wagging, behind wriggling, eager for some love.
Jack kicks the dog.
Now what do we know about Jack’s feelings? We know he’s not only mad, but he also has a cruel streak in him, which wasn’t evident in the previous scene. And what did you feel? Did you smile at the dog’s description? Were you taken aback when Jack kicked it?
Jack could just as easily have knelt down and hugged the dog, which would have created a different emotion in him and the reader, and would have shown him as a different kind of person. In any case, using the dog as a prop helps show who Jack is in a more effective way than the writer saying, ‘Jack could be a cruel boy when he got angry.’ Or, ‘No matter how angry Jack got, his dog could always cheer him up.’
And finally, props keep your story moving. If we go back to the above example, nothing is really happening as Jack lies on the couch. He whines and feels sorry for himself, but that’s about it. Once you add a prop to a scene, it forces yours characters to act and react because the prop is tangible. It’s there and has to be dealt with. If Jack had walked in the door and ignored the dog completely, (which is a reaction) it still would have added more to the scene and his characterization than if the dog hadn't been there at all.
The whole purpose of a prop is support. It aids and helps, whether in the real world or in fiction. Find one in your character’s world and put it to use. Even imaginary characters can use a little help now and then.