“Beware the hobby that eats.”
Last year, I was coaching a student who’d gotten stuck in plotting his manuscript. I asked Pete about his protagonist’s favorite flavor of ice cream.
Pete was writing a serious, forensic-focused mystery. He never understood why I was asking about ice cream when he needed to get his character through a problematic scene about a broken chain of evidence.
I wanted to make Pete see that he didn’t know his character well enough to solve the scene. If you can’t call up a character’s favorite drink, ice-cream flavor, or type of music, you’re unlikely to be clear about how that character’s going to deal with challenging plot situations.
Knowing your character’s hobbies, however, doesn’t mean you’re going to center your story around them or chase after tangents. It means you’re adding enough extra dimension to bring the protagonist to life.
Quick! Name character Travis McGee’s favorite brand of gin: (Boodles, and later, Plymouth.) Quick! Name character James Bond’s favorite cocktail: (a dry martini that’s shaken, not stirred.) Quick! Identify the name of character Spenser’s dog: (Pearl.) Quick! Name character Harry Potter’s favorite sport: (quidditch.)
Authors John D. MacDonald, Ian Fleming, Robert B. Parker, and J.K. Rowling have all understood the value of knowing what their protagonists do for fun. Even STAR TREK’s somber Mr. Spock played a Vulcan harp and three-dimensional chess in his off-duty hours.
The standard writing advice is to construct a character consistently from a foundation of focused dominant impression. I agree with that method. I even teach it. But if you don’t add additional layers and texture to a character from that basis, you’ll end up with a character that’s superficially vivid and even effective to a limited degree, but ultimately devoid of life.
Example: Say that you want your protagonist to be serious.
Let’s call him Joe.
He’s six feet two and muscular. He has steel-gray eyes and blond hair clipped short. His features are chiseled. Maybe he has a faint scar on his chin. His background includes service as a former Navy SEAL and playing college football for Alabama. He’s married to a dentist named Lauren. They have no children, no pets. Joe is dependable, responsible, loyal, and protective. He’s conservative in religion, politics, and finances. He drives a blue sedan, chosen for gas economy. He and his wife live in a middle-class suburb in a remodeled mid-century house.
I could go on and on, but by now I figure you’re losing any initial interest you might have had in Joe. I’m bored with him, too.
Why? He’s vivid physically and his military background hints at possible excitement, but the more I continue choosing details that only fit his dominant impression of “serious,” the more he starts to flatten as a character. He’s lifeless, and no matter how much research I might do on the grade and color of his wall-to-wall carpet, piling on additional consistent details isn’t going to help.
What does Joe do in his spare time when he’s not involved in your story’s plot events? Does he listen to music? Tinker on an old car? Play computer chess? Build boats in his basement? Coach Little League baseball? Grow orchids competitively? Attend flea markets?
Let’s say that he loves to play poker. You can leave it at that level, and show a relaxed side of Joe that enjoys inviting his friends over to his man cave in the garage, where they gamble for low stakes and drink beer while the game’s on.
If we want to bump up the intensity a notch, we might choose to put a severe gambling addiction in Joe’s past. Now, he bets with bottle caps and tries to hide how much his hands shake when his friends discuss more serious betting.
Or, we can escalate Joe’s hobby into a plot problem. He’s convinced he’s under control, only he’s down to the tune of $80,000. He told his wife he went on a business trip, but instead he sneaked down to Tunica, Mississippi, and spent three crazy days in the casino. Now, if he pulls that much money from savings, his wife will be asking questions he doesn’t want to answer. Meanwhile, there’s a poker championship he’s dying to enter, and he spends the mortgage payment for the entry fee. After all, if he wins the championship, the prize will pay for half of his outstanding debt.
Why does Joe love to gamble? Does he like the challenge and stimulation of the game? Is it the adrenaline rush, the feeling of being on the edge that he misses now that he works in a dull corporate office? Maybe he learned how to play as a kid and was always good at it. Maybe he got into it in college. Maybe it steadied his nerves before dangerous missions while he was in the Navy.
Something in his background is going to explain why he has this passion or obsession now. As you design his character, seeking answers to questions of why will make you dig deeper into what makes this guy tick. He starts to come to life. He starts to become interesting.