Tuesday Ten: Character Development Through Hobbies

This week, I wanted to expand on one of the character quirks I listed in last week’s Tuesday Ten post: hobbies. If you’re like me, you might give your character a hobby simply to add a bit of color. And hobbies do add color: a good hobby will make your character quirkier and more memorable.

As a writer, though, you may want to make this character detail work even harder and, especially as you get deeper into a book, it can useful to think about what a character’s hobby can accomplish beyond adding surface color.

happyskrappy hobbies

Photo Credit

Here are ten questions (okay, more than ten questions <grin>) to ask yourself when you go hobby-hunting for your character:

  1. Do you want a hobby that makes a character more sympathetic? Readers tend to like characters who are passionate about something, so even a simple hobby can accomplish this purpose. You can also think about creating contrast within an otherwise unlikeable character: the villain who feeds the birds shows a softer side and the villain who has a passion for gardening might be touched by a protagonist who appreciates a fine cultivar of rose.
  2. Do you want the hobby to help your readers identify with the character? When you choose one of the “usual suspects” for your character—collecting baseball cards or playing basketball, for example—you can draw your target audience into the book. You’re creating a character familiar enough that it could be your reader. This character may face the same real-life problems your reader will face, or may have the sort of fantastic adventures your reader wishes he or she could have.
  3. Do you want your hobby to be new, exciting, or even exotic? Think of the kids who took up rollerblading before anyone else even knew what roller blades were. This sort of hobby makes your character stand out. It can play a major role in the story, or can simply add to the portrait of your character, implying that he or she is unique or, perhaps, trendy.
  4. Do you want a hobby that will make your readers go “Wow, I wish I could do something like that”? We all love to read about heroes who are slightly larger than life—the ones who do things we might only dream about. Do you want to provide your reader with a vicarious adventure? If so, this might be the type of hobby you’re looking for: rock climbing, parachuting, sailing around the world, riding a unicycle, competitive jump roping.
  5. Do you want a hobby that will make your readers think, “Ewww, gross, that guy is creepy!” (Or, if you write for middle graders, perhaps you want your audience to think, “Ewww, gross, that guy is cool!”)
  6. How does the hobby reflect your character’s values—who he or she is? Your character’s choice of hobby can illustrate her needs, desires, strengths, weakness, and fears.
  7. How does the hobby serve your character? A hobby can serve as an escape, a refuge, or even a place for your character to prove herself. Ask whether this activity represent a creative outlet or a distraction, obsession, or addiction.
  8. What is your character’s attitude toward this hobby? Does she take pride in it? Does it embarrass her? Does he hide it? Think how your hobby can serve as a vehicle for character development.
  9. Would this character grow if he allowed himself to pursue this activity more freely or if he gave it up for something more important? A hobby can play into your character’s growth over the course of the story, as an obstacle, a goal, or even as a way to mirror the book’s primary theme and conflict.
  10. Who supports your character in this hobby? Who stands in his way? Does this activity connect him with others or somehow keep him separate? A hobby provides a venue with which your character can connect to or be separated from other characters.

Plot: Finding the Threads (or: How to Eat an Elephant)

Last week, fellow YA author and blogger Julie Musil wrote a terrific post on how to use a spreadsheet analyze and improve your novel’s plot: Performing Plot CPR. If you haven’t read it, check it out. In this post, she provides a framework for getting the big picture of your work in progress so you can see what works, what doesn’t, and what you can cut without regrets.

Photo courtesy of GollyGforce on Flickr Creative Commons

I, too, am deep in the rewrite process—and rewriting a 300-page novel, even one that’s already been through multiple rounds of rewriting and revision is an elephant-sized task. When I try to take on the whole thing at once, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

However, there’s a time-honored technique for tackling any immense task or problem: divide it into smaller pieces and work on one at a time. Julie’s post explains one way to identify individual story elements where you can focus your efforts, and I want to share another technique: tracing individual story “threads” to make sure that each progresses smoothly and logically throughout the book.

After all, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What is a story thread? Any information, relationship, or sequence of events that unfolds gradually during your book. For instance, in my rewrite I’m tracking the following threads:

  • Cass’s conflict with Jen
  • Information about the research station and its history
  • Backstory and explanation for the paranormal element
  • Romance element between Cass and Jason
  • Unfolding (and often conflicting) information about how Cass’s parents died

In order to analyze these individual threads, I create a list with the following information for each chapter:

  • Information revealed/changes that occur
  • Resulting emotion/attitude

Sometimes I need to track more information, in which case my list becomes a spreadsheet, where I add one or all of the following columns:

  • Single-phrase chapter summary  (for ex: on boat to Rodger’s Island, reveals reason for visit)
  • What the character now believes (if the thread pertains to a mystery or unfolding information)
  • What the character now desires

I find this technique particularly helpful for complicated plots, or for a book where I’m so familiar with plot and backstory that I might not notice when I leave out key information.

What story elements do you track when rewriting? Any more tips to share?

Extreme Writers!

I’ve noticed that I, and many other writers I know, develop the skill (because it is a skill) of writing anywhere and everywhere, while cooking dinner, walking the dogs, hiking, sailing, camping…you name it. In honor of the Versatile Writer, I wanted to start featuring all you Extreme Writers.
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You know who you are—you write rain or shine, during soccer practice and in line at the grocery store, and neither flood nor famine nor dark of night can stop you (because you have a handy-dandy electronic device to capture midnight ideas).



page after pageSo. Send me your pics, of you writing in extreme conditions, whether that be on a bicycle or surrounded by young’uns or lounging on the beach with an umbrella drink where all but the hardiest would fail to write. I’ll post a winner every Friday. For this week’s prize, I offer one of my favorite inspirational writing books, Page After Page: Discover the confidence and passion you need to start writing & keep writing (no matter what!), by Heather Sellers.*

Send submissions to cheryl (at) cherylreifsnyder.com. I can’t wait to see where you all are writing this summer!

:) Cheryl

*If you already have/don’t need Page After Page, other giveaways include Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction; and Sol Stein’s On Writing.

Tuesday Ten: Character Quirks

seer3 Geek confession: I used to play D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, for the uninitiated). In fact, I used to play another gaming system that rivaled D&D back in the day, a system designed by Steve Jackson called GURPS (which I believe stood for Generic Universal Role Playing System). It wasn’t nearly as complex or detailed as the D&D 4.0, for which my boys now spend hours memorizing rules and character info, but it had one really cool component that’s stuck with me over the years: Character Quirks.

In case you haven’t ever played a role playing game, you generally start by creating a character. In order for all players to have characters approximately equal in abilities, you usually have a specified number of points you can spend to buy different attributes—things like intelligence, charisma, dexterity, and strength. You use these different attributes to determine what you can or can’t do during the course of the game.

In the GURPS system, you could get extra character points to spend by choosing character quirks—character details that encourage you to role play more but don’t provide practical value; that is, a quirk would guide your reactions in a given scenario but would not increase your ability to climb a tree, pick a pocket, or fight a dragon. They were designed to help players create characters that were more fun to play.

I often think back on the GURPS list of character quirks when I’m thinking about the characters in my writing. Quirks can make characters more interesting, larger-than-life, real, or more sympathetic. I kinda wish I had my old GURPS books so I could refer to their list…but the truth is that I’ve created my own (ever-expanding) list of quirks that can round out characters. Here are a few of the categories I use. Feel free to add more in the comments!

Types of Character Quirks

  1. Addictions: These can range from minor/inconvenient (sugar, caffeine, diet soda) to major/life-changing (alcohol, drugs, cutting)—although to qualify as a character quirk, the addiction wouldn’t usually be the story focus. Think of it more as COLOR!
  2. Habits: This is a great quirk to collect in airports and coffee shops. Think of finger drumming, toe tapping, folding dollar bills into origami flowers, drawing spirals on one’s skin, compulsively creating rhymes, playing buzzword bingo, collecting odd bits of information…the possibilities are endless, each with different ramifications for the mood of story and character. 
  3. Pets: Choice of pet can reveal a lot about character in very few words. Does your character choose a Great Dane too big for him to control? A particularly intelligent chinchilla? A snake, cool and withdrawn? What does she enjoy about the pet? How do they interact? Did she choose the pet or vice versa? Janet Evanovich’s immortal Stephanie Plum, a bail bondswoman with a knack for solving mysteries in the midst of relationship/hair/auto crises, has a pet hamster. He’s not a huge part of the story, but he gives her something to care about, someone to talk to when she’s alone in the house, someone to worry about when the villain invades her kitchen. It’s fantastic.
  4. Hobbies/interests/special knowledge: I think that, as writers, it’s easy to think of this category primarily in the context of the Brainy Kid stereotype. Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl), Cadel Piggott (Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius), and Hermione (Harry Potter) are all super-smart characters whose brains can save the day—but it can be even more powerful when a character who isn’t an obvious intellect cracks the code or dredges up the key information to solve a story problem. In My Cousin Vinny, the big-haired, gum-cracking, New Jersey native Mona Lisa Vito (SPOILER ALERT!) becomes the case-breaking witness for her automotive knowledge. It’s surprising and wonderful—and kids and adults alike relate more readily to the average character with a skill than the all-knowing genius.
  5. Background: The ever-important backstory generally plays an important role in story. Events before the opening page inform your character’s relationships, trust, belief system, skills, fears, and more, and often provide the foundation for both plot and theme. However, unusual background can also be just plain fun—like the fact that the main character in Carl Hiassen’s adult novel Skinny Dip (a terrific summer read) lost her parents in a plane accident that occurred because they were flying with a dancing bear that had had too much to drink.
  6. Disability: Like background, disability can provide quirky color or it can be the underpinnings of your entire story structure. In Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty, Freak, aka Kevin, has a birth defect that keeps him in braces and crutches, and this weakness what brings he and soon-to-be best friend Max together. In Skinny Dip, one of the characters has trouble sitting due to an old injury: he was shot in the butt. It’s a funny, quirky detail—that Hiassen uses in the unfolding plot to create surprise and character growth.
  7. Fear/wound: An old hurt or an ongoing fear may be founded in pre-story events, but will inform your characters actions and responses as the story moves forward. For instance, Matt Cruise (Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series) harbors the odd conviction that he can never fall, in part because he still struggles to come to terms with his father’s fall to his death—a wound from years before.
  8. Beliefs: One of my favorite quirky characters is elderly Mr. Fogarty in Herbie Brennan’s Faerie Wars. Mr. Fogarty defends his house with a baseball bat, is a firm believer in most conspiracy theories, and was probably abducted by aliens, although I don’t believe that detail is every specified. He’s also the main character’s best friend, sympathetic (in a super-weird, super-cranky kind of way), and very, very, very quirky—all because he has some truly odd beliefs.
  9. Unusual gift or skill: What do The Mysterious Benedict Society, Savvy, and Harry Potter have in common? They all feature kids with special abilities. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovers that he has a gift for magic; in the later books, the gift becomes the tool he uses to solve challenges and defeat his enemies. In Savvy, magic is an everyday part of life for Mibs Beaumont—she just doesn’t know what her particular gift will be, and its discovery becomes one of the book’s themes. The kids in The Mysterious Benedict Society have non-magical gifts that remind me of Howard Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences theory—mechanical genius, a photographic memory, and an astonishing gift for stubbornness. An unusual skill can help your character get out of sticky situations or provide problems for them to unravel—while making them more intriguing to your readers.
  10. Crazy friends/relatives: Need I say more? The crazy friend you love to hate—the crazy relative you need to escape—the wacky neighbor who adds zest to the story—wherever you can add the spice of the unusual, do. It will make your readers keep turning pages…and isn’t that what it’s all about?

A “quirk” is a great way to round out a character with the sort of memorable detail that will help them jump off the page into your readers’ arms. Or heads, as the case may be.

Any favorite examples of quirky characters? Please share!