Being a Better Writer: Small Windows of Character

Life, The Universe, and Everything is this week!

Yeah, that’s an opening of excitement. I love attending LTUE (which if you’ve somehow missed or not heard of, is a Fantasy/Science-Fiction convention that focuses foremost on authors and writers; check out their site here). Tomorrow I’ll throw my schedule up here on the site, ie what panels I’m interested in attending, where I’ll be, etc, but no mistake, if you spot me and want to say “Hello!” do so! I love attending this convention not just to both learn and pass on knowledge, but also to run into people and chat about books, writing, games … the works!

Okay, I’ll stop disrupting today’s Being a Better Writer post now. Well, save for one small detail:

My entire lexicon (as in, all of my books) will be on sale during LTUE. Starting a day beforehand—this Wednesday—and running through the weekend. This will be a great chance to catch up on any you’ve missed, let friends who might want a copy of one know,  share a link on Facebook (hint, hint), etc. It’s the LTUE sale!

And, like I said, it’s only through the weekend, starting one day before LTUE does (so that you’ve got a day beforehand if you really don’t want to be distracted during the con).

With that, all LTUE news is over for this post (tomorrow is another story). I hope to see you there! And yes, tomorrow I’ll give you some helpful identification in tomorrow’s post plus a picture if you’re looking to say hello.

Now, news out of the way, let’s talk about today’s BaBW topic. Which is … well, a bit of an interesting one. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about characters, or specifically, what makes them unique and have depth to a reader.

Which is, to be fair, nothing new. But today I wanted to talk about a specific aspect of giving our characters depth and how we approach it, because as I’ve been thinking upon it, I think that this is a delicate area that many authors accidentally overstep or underutilize for one reason or another.

With that, I’m starting to worry that I’m getting a little too nebulous here, so let’s just dive into it. Today, I want to talk about character quirks and how we use them.

Now, I’ve talked about character quirks on here before, usually with regards to creating characters and making them come to life. Quirks, if you’ve not read earlier posts on the subject (of which there’s more than one, by the way), are the small things that make someone real. Bear in mind when I say “quirks” I’m actually referring to hobbies, quirks, and other small aspects of someone’s character that are quite important to who they are. For example, I have a friend who’s well-known for being extremely expressive with his eyebrows, especially when giving someone a sarcastic or skeptical look. So well known that if he or anyone that knows him reads this post, they’d know exactly who I am referring to. It’s something small that he does that’s kind of his thing.

Other examples of quirks could be a former smoker character checking their pocket (the one they used to keep their smokes in) every time they get nervous, or a character who enjoys doing crosswords doing so whenever they have a minute, just as a method of processing their thoughts.

All kinds of stuff like that. Small things that make us, well, human. Little habits, odd escapes, unique interests, and just hobbies in general are all things that each of us do and possess, but in some strange way, often don’t make it into fiction.

And … well, there’s a reason for that, and we’ll get to it. But as for why we want them in our fiction, well … Everything I’ve discussed so far is, in all fairness, something talked about before here. I’ve spoken about quirks, and I’ve spoken about hobbies. And I’ve discussed how those elements help make a character real. They lend them humanity and relatable traits, even if the reader doesn’t happen to share those traits.

Using the example above, for instance, with the former smoker. While a reader may not be a former smoker who experiences the same reaction whenever they get nervous, odds are that they have their own reactions to growing nervous, commonly shared or not. So when they come across a character who experiences this sort of quirk, it’s instantly something they have a capacity to empathize with, even subconsciously. Which in turn, makes that nervous former-smoker more real.

Similar goes for hobbies, which I often shuffle under quirks, but are if I’m honest a little different. Hobbies cover a broad range, from painting to sports, but there’s a common thread across them that makes them great tools for character development: why we have them in the first place.

Think about one of your hobbies for a moment, regardless of what it is. Why do you do it? Because you enjoy something about it. There’s something to it that relaxes you, amps you up, is enjoyable, something. That’s why we do them. I mountain bike (or did before my mountain bike got stolen) because I love the thrill of being up on the mountainside, of climbing up it, of seeing the miles fall away and hearing my heart pound. It gives me time to think, time to clear my head.

And while someone who’s not into mountain biking the way I am won’t understand that, they can empathize with the draw the same way someone who’s not an ex-smoker can emphasize with the nervous character example above. Someone who isn’t me may not get the thrill of climbing a mountain … but they can certainly empathize with the desire to climb said mountain if its expressed as a draw to the character.

Let me clarify what I mean there: While a reader may not share a specific hobby, they will more than likely share the same base desires that draw one to a hobby. For example, the ability to clear one’s head and do something they enjoy as a hobby to help them think. That’s common across many hobbies. Some people run at a the gym to clear their minds, others knit, and others sketch things. But they all can perform that hobby with the intent of “I need time to think this over.”

Thus, the characters action and interest make them more relatable, when used properly. The reader may not relate to the specific action taken, but they can empathize heavily with the need for a hobby to help clear one’s head.

Okay, again, we’ve discussed elements of this before. This is all well and good. But what about using these elements in fiction? You may note that in the paragraph above I used the phrase “when used properly” when speaking of using hobbies. Is there a way to do this poorly? Does that extend to quirks? To use them well?

Well, clearly the answer is yes, or I wouldn’t lead in like that. But in order to talk about using them well, I want to talk about something that you may have noticed in some stories you’ve read. In particular, an utter lack of hobbies and/or quirks, or when they are there, seeing them used in a very particular way that, in all honesty, does the reader and the story a disservice.

See, as I was thinking about this topic, I started casting my mind over a large array of books and I noticed that a lot of titles I’ve read will do one of two things: either eschew hobbies and quirks entirely, or force them into the narrative.

Let’s be clear here: I don’t believe either approach to be correct. But I do see why it’s happening, and why editors and authors are doing it. Quite simply they’re placing the narrative above the characters. And, I believe, on a misinterpretation.

See, one of the “golden rules” of writing is that everything has to serve the story somehow. That your book shouldn’t have any “dead weight” that doesn’t add anything to it. That you should cut anything that doesn’t “move the story forward.”

So, what happens is authors and editors cut these quirks because they don’t move the story forward (instead just being character development). Or they settle for the second option, which is to give the characters hobbies and quirks that will be vehicles to move the story forward in some way, which usually, though not always, results in some contrived things happening.

I do mean contrived too. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre contrivances worked into a plot so that a character’s hobby can be “relevant” in some way. And in turn, I’ve read a lot of stories where the protagonist’s hobby is an extremely helpful one, such as jogging or tinkering with engines.

Don’t get me wrong, those are good hobbies and quirks to have for a character. But when they’re in the story specifically to be forced for the narrative, well … they often come off as weak. Not genuine.

Oh, and did I mention contrived? Far too often I have read a book where the big bad’s security or critical weakness or whatever just happens to be whatever strange, esoteric hobby the protagonist practices. Far. Too. Often. Even once is too often, if I’m honest. It’s somewhat forgivable with a few hobbies, but even then, it can come off as … well, cheap. Cheap if the hobby is common (“No! How could there be someone to break through my plumbing-based security system!? Plumbers are so rare!”) and contrived if the hobby is complicated (“Haha! You’ll never make it past my Sleeve-Valve Engine-based security system!”).

We laugh, but I’ve read books like this. They happen. And all because an author is afraid to give their characters quirks or hobbies that don’t specifically and immediately influence the plot in some way.

In effect, they’ve let their characters exist only in service to the narrative rather than as characters in their own right. And that’s … well, it can make for a fun story, but it’s not conducive to good characters.

Good writing, as I and many other authors have said before is knowing the rules, yes, but also knowing when to break them! So when we say everything has to move the story forward, well, that’s a rule, yes. But sometimes … you should break it.

Not often. But not every line needs to move a plot forward.

Actually, let me use an analogy for this. Moving our plot forward is a bit like shining a light across a dark room or tunnel as our character walks through it. Wherever we shine the light is where we write about the story. So the character shines the light, moving the story forward to build a bigger picture, right?

Well, sometimes it’s okay to shine that same light on the character, even if that means we’re taking away from shining things on the narrative for a brief moment. Just so that our readers can see who’s holding the flashlight and learn a little bit about them.

As analogies go, it’s not perfect, but I feel it serves to “shine a light” on the point, which is that it’s all right to give a character quirks or hobbies that have nothing to do with the narrative. You can let your protagonist play guitar even if that never becomes some vital, life-saving element in the story. It’s just something that makes them human, and often that’s more than enough.

Now, this doesn’t mean, however, that you can go wild with your quirks and hobbies. After all, the light has to move back to the tunnel before long. Actually, rather quickly. You don’t want to bog down your story, after all, on something that isn’t going to have any impact. Dropping into a sideplot about a battle of the bands, for example, that has nothing to do with anything else in the story and serves no other purpose than to point out that your character is a guitar hobbyist? Eeeeehhhh … yeah. You shouldn’t do that. That’s a subplot that’s padding at best or at worse, completely pointless and boring.

But there’s a line between the two you can walk. For example, in my own works, there’s a character named Hunter who has a few hobbies in music: He plays both the guitar and the saxophone. Is this important to the story?

Well … yes … but no. It’s important to the story in that it’s important to Hunter, and therefore, his part in the story is going involve him occasionally having thoughts about his hobby. For example, in one scene in the first story he was in, he played his guitar at his desk instead of doing paperwork to clear his head. Now, whether or not anything came from that playing session (in one case something did, but in others it was just him relaxing for a bit), his character was reinforced.

Later, this aspect of his character holds true. When things are difficult or puzzling, he’ll sometimes wish he could just kick back and jam for a little while, just to relax. Does this move the story forward? No. But it does reinforce his character and make him more of a relatable protagonist for the audience. Even with just one or two lines, or at most a paragraph.

Now, I’m not saying that a characters hobbies and quirks can’t or worse, shouldn’t tie into the rest of the story or even the plot. Not at all! They can! But one doesn’t have to tie them into the narrative in order to let a character have them. They can just have them! They can be parts of the character that are referenced from time to time without being a giant Chekhov’s Gun (or as some call it, Chekhov’s Skill).

Crud, in some cases, forcing them into a narrative becomes a case of ‘Chekhov’s Crutch’ instead, limiting the story or the author’s tools to move forward. Earlier I mentioned how so many books give a character the hobby of jogging because it’s a relatable hobby that many people share … but also can be easily used as a plot device to move the narrative forward. Except that it often becomes less of a Chekhov’s Skill and a case of “when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail.”

In other words, I’ve read stories where “jogging” is not only a plot device hobby to move things forward, but an overused one that felt like a crutch. For example, one book I read had a character who had the hobby “jogging” and it was used in every narrative way imaginable. Going jogging? You’ll find a clue. Going jogging? There’s that secret building you’re not supposed to know about, by chance, as you jog by it. Going jogging? Antagonist decides to try to off the protagonist while they’re doing that. Going jogging …?

You get the idea. Basically, because the author had given the character a hobby with the sole purpose of having a hobby that could move the plot forward … it sort of became a default tool for moving things forward. And honestly, that’s just as bad as not having any hobby at all, because it makes the tool-like use of it readily apparent and predictable.

In other words, while you shouldn’t force your character to have hobbies and interests just to serve the narrative, be wary of overusing hobbies or quirks that do serve the narrative far too much. They have a place in the story, sure, but don’t let them become a crutch to move things forward that you resort to at first go.

Note: This isn’t the same as having the character resort to a crutch which then fails and boosts them in some sort of growth. Don’t mix up that with this. An author using a skill as a crutch and a character using a skill as a crutch are different.

All right, let’s step back and summarize everything that’s been said so far. Wrap it up, really. Hobbies and quirks? These are good things to give our characters. They make them more relatable, more approachable. We have them. So should our characters.

But do not worry about forcing those quirks and hobbies to fit the story in some way. Hobbies aren’t something we choose in order to have a unique skill that could save the world. Not always (though I imagine there are a number of hobbyist that have picked some hobbies on just that case). But outside some outliers, most hobbies are hobbies that someone enjoys. They don’t need to have a tie-in to move our narrative forward. They can just be something our character likes!

Which in turn, will give them more depth and appeal to our reader. Sure, it may not be important to saving the world that our protagonist enjoys cooking challenges and is struggling to master a tough dish … but it’s something grounded that many can and will empathize with, even if it’s only the focus of a paragraph or two.

And again, don’t overdo it, either in working a hobby or skill toward the narrative or keeping it it’s own thing. Don’t let a character trait that works into the narrative become the only trait in the narrative or moving it forward. Likewise, don’t take a skill that doesn’t apply to those things but is part of the character and give it so much focus that it pulls the narrative away from itself (and, as a side note, if this does happen, you have a different story on your hands/talons/claws/tentacles/whatever, and need to either pull it back or engage in a rewrite).

As I said, not every single thing needs to “move the narrative forward.” It’s fine to take a brief glimpse at the characters traveling the path. But focus for too long, and the story loses focus. A single line reinforcing their character can be more than enough for the reader to acknowledge and move on.

As with many things, it’s a careful balance. And you’ll need to learn to walk it, rather than omit it entirely (as some do) if you want to deliver the best possible story you can write. There may be some false steps, and some stumbles, but in the end? You’ll have a story with characters that feel real, that have depth. That are, in a way, human.

So, as I always say at the end of these, good luck.

Now get writing.


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