I love building characters. In fact, “building” is apt, because for me, they come a piece at a time. A brick or two might lock into place as I wrestle with that hateful night demon, Insomnia. Another may manifest with morning coffee or as I scarf down a non-food pyramid approved lunch. But slowly—oh, so slowly—the pieces come. That half-glimpsed figure sliding along the edge of my imagination packs on winter weight, and becomes someone interesting, special, and worth rooting for.
It’s common to pay close attention to the big ticket items when character building: personality (those positive and negative traits), physicality (physical features), worldview (morals, beliefs, biases, attitudes) and of course backstory, which leads to the most important piece of all: motivation. Knowing what unmet need the painful past has created tells us what drives the character, and toward what: the perfect goal that will fill this unmet need.
Once these blocks are set though, some writers get impatient–they want to write. So other aspects (a character’s occupation, their likes & dislikes, interests, secrets, quirks, hobbies, etc.) are rushed as the writer goes with whatever seems “good enough.” After all, these are small bits. They don’t matter much…right?
But here’s the thing…they do.
Little details play a big role: they make a character human.
Readers want to connect to a character who feels real. Someone they could sit and have a beer with. Someone who is, just maybe, a little bit like them.
Lately I’ve been working on One Stop for Writers’ idea generator (specifically creating more options for hobbies, a perfect example of “smaller details”). The idea generator offers a brainstorming nudge if it is needed, and when it comes to hobbies, we want writers think past the stock choices and instead choose an interest that gives the character depth, making them memorable.
As I was adding new hobbies to that generator, I wanted to make sure I was supplying a good range of choices. So, I created categories for the different types:
- Focused Interest
- Advocacy & Community
- Skill & Knowledge
- Sports & Active Lifestyle
- Adventure & Thrill-Seeking
- Strategy & Invention
These cover a variety of possible hobbies, and hopefully will allow writers to find a match that will show readers something specific and interesting about the character.
For example, a thrill-seeker might choose street racing, going on shark dives, or searching for paranormal activity as a hobby. The type of person into these things would be someone very different than say, a character who performs random acts of kindness (advocacy & community), handles poisonous creatures (animal-related), or likes to enter eating challenges (food-related).
But then I started to think about hobbies that aren’t mainstream. This led to 3 more categories: Unusual, Disturbing, & Illegal
Now we’re cooking with gas! After all, your anti-hero, antagonist, or villain can have a hobby. It provides the same valuable opportunity to characterize them. And if that hobby gets them into trouble at the worst possible time? Even better.
Bottom Line: Hobbies Are More Than Stage Dressing!
1) They Characterize. How someone chooses to spend their time says a lot about them. If they put their energy into a particular interest, it can show their level of intelligence, other skills or talents they possess, and even indicate what beliefs, morals, and values the character holds dear. Does your character hunt with a rifle, or a camera? Do they collect artifacts to preserve history, or do they think forward, looking to invent the next trend, style, or big thing?
2) They Add Dimension. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when it comes to the protagonist and the antagonist by making everything be about the goal at hand. But by paying attention to the smaller things (especially in the opening of a novel), you actually make the characters feel more human, and that makes them more accessible to readers, helping them better slip into the character’s reality. Think about it like a save the cat moment, but rather than going for likeability, you’re taking an opportunity to round the character out, showing that they have interests and passions just like anyone else.
3) They Make Someone Seem More Real — A Work-In-Progress. It is very easy to make certain characters (like the story’s hero or heroine) super skilled so readers admire them and they will have what it takes to achieve their goal. But if we go too far, characters cease to be realistic. I mean, are you good at everything? Me neither. And readers are the same. Showing a character trying to master the learning curve (and even fail at something) shows they are just like anyone else. Becoming good at something, even a hobby, takes time.
4) They Can Contribute To The Story. A hobby or interest is something you can bring into the plot to further events. Maybe their hobby will factor into how they solve a big obstacle in their path: a blind neighbor they read to is the only person in a position to help the character escape an abusive marriage, or the investigative skills they’ve learned by digging up their ancestry becomes the key to finding the evidence that proves they are being framed for murder. When it comes to character building details, maximize everything.
5) They Can Hint That Something Is Off. Hobbies can also indicate a character’s dark side. If your friendly high school math teacher surfs the dark web…why is that? Or if their interest in people-watching leads them to set up webcams in public places (and then not-so-public places) do they realize they have crossed a line? Interests can become hobbies…and hobbies can become obsessions. What happens when your character realizes they are no longer in control?
Whether you are planning a big character piece or a small one, all details should be chosen with care. Make them meaningful, not random. This is how we master subtext, show & tell, and create characters that feel human. 🙂
Does your character have a hobby? Let me know in the comments!
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