Savvy Saturday – Give Your Characters a Hobby!

ceramic_unicornsWhat do your characters do for fun? If you’re a writer, the answer to this question can go a long way toward helping readers connect to your stories. While many writers develop long lists of attributes of their characters that never make it into a novel, a character’s favorite activities should be high on the list of things to be mentioned – even if that favorite activity has nothing to do with the plot. Why? There are three reasons: simple character building, personality/motivational character building, and abilities character building

First, we as people are built to connect with other people. Learning interesting things about others – how they’re different and unique individuals – hooks our interest and makes us care about what happens to them. For instance, take Suzie. Suzie is a girl. She is nine years old. She is an orphan. From Zimbabwe. Who was adopted into an upper-class African-American family. Her favorite colors are pink and silver. She does well at school – especially math – but she loves playing soccer.

With each additional piece of information, we learn something about Suzie and thus become more attached to her as a person. At the beginning, Suzie is indistinguishable from any other girl. By the end, we know a bit about her, and might care enough to find out more.

Note, however, that we still only know facts about Suzie. We don’t know why she feels the way she does, or how her love of soccer might be relevant to anything else that happens in her life. This leads to the second thing that sharing a favorite activity in a story can help you with: giving the audience a “hook” into the character’s personality or motivations. Let’s say that our story about Suzie revolves around her settling into her new life in America with her new family. This, clearly, has nothing to do with soccer. However, an author could use this love of soccer to show readers what Suzie is like.

soccerSuzie might talk about how she loves soccer because she doesn’t have to speak English to play, so she can be part of a team, and be valued by her teammates. She might say that when she played soccer in Zimbabwe, she was able to forget about being hungry, about the guns and kidnappings and the fear that hung over the orphanage like a cold mist, and focus on winning the game. In this case, revealing Suzie’s love of soccer and why it’s important to her helps readers understand where this girl is coming from. It gives readers a glimpse into her past, how it shapes her present, and helps them see how Suzie might react to future events. By using soccer as the vehicle to discuss Suzie’s past, the author doesn’t have to spell out for readers that she is embarrassed by her poor English abilities, wants friends, and is afraid of bad things happening that she can’t control. These facts can come out in the context of a story, and also give insights into who Suzie is as a person.

Finally, favorite activities can give insights into characters’ abilities or actions that relate to the plot of the story. For instance, Suzie might in a fit of anger kick a rock through her new parents’ window with devastating accuracy, and readers would believe it because she has a background in soccer. More positively, Suzie might be able to use her practice at focusing her attention on winning a game and letting all outside distractions go, as she attempts to study for a test, play in her school orchestra, or clean her room.

As another example, we learn in The Quest of the Unaligned that Alaric, the main character, likes to engage in knife-throwing competitions in the local bar. He gambles on his abilities as a way to earn some pocket-money, and happens to be very good. This reveals things about his personality (he’ll take bets as long as he thinks they’re safe, and he’s confident in his physical abilities), his skills (he’s athletic, good with weapons in general, and good at throwing knives in particular), and also hints at future plot points that will take place in the novel.

Another dimension to consider is whether a character’s hobby “makes sense” given their current job or situation (e.g. a sailor liking to gamble, or an English major who lives to write poetry), or is unexpected (e.g. a Ph.D. student in Marketing who loves writing fantasy novels). Both types of hobbies work, and both give insights into your character. Hobbies that “make sense” tend to be good for establishing abilities and motivations, but aren’t as good at making people care about a character. (They add depth to the dimensions that have already been established, but not breadth. For instance, knowing that a thief practices picking locks for fun is nice, but doesn’t distinguish him/her from a multitude of others.) Hobbies that are unusual, in contrast, are harder to relate to a character’s abilities and motivations pertaining to the story at hand, but can round out a character more easily.

So what do your characters do for fun, and how will you put this information to use in your next story? Leave a comment below!

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