Skilled Characters

My dearest friend texted me yesterday about a character who is an aspiring author who adores libraries and books about as much as she enjoys origami, self-styling herself as a paper sculpture artist. She worried that it was “too much” for the character, perhaps on the basis that female characters who openly celebrate their talents and hobbies are more likely to be criticized than their male counterparts (see: accusations of writing a Mary Sue). For a character in a modern setting, however, it would make sense if she, perhaps, listened to audiobooks while keeping her hands busy with paper crafts. Especially since said-character, as my friend revealed later, lived with a very sensitive and severe case of asthma, thus barred from many outdoor and physical activities. These are reasonable skills for the character that complement her personality and capabilities without disturbing the harmony of her characterization.

It left me thinking on some old writing advice I read years ago: Each character should have three hobbies, at the very least. Now, ignoring the blanket aspect of that statement (let’s just say I have that opinion concerning a lot of writing advice, that anyone reading tips and tricks for any aspect of writing should carry a huge bag of salt and take those grains regularly), I was, at first, skeptical. Wasn’t three hobbies too much, especially for characters who were very young, had little time/energy/ability to devote to these hobbies, and/or their environment was not conductive to cultivating the skills that accompany these hobbies?

But then I considered myself and could think of those three minimum hobbies in a heartbeat. I enjoy writing, reading, and trying to break video games. I then considered my parents: my mother enjoys watching movies, gossiping on social media, and reading; my father enjoys reading, woodwork crafts, and trying to break operating systems. Look at enough people, at their skills, at what they enjoy, and you can see patterns emerge that complement who they are. My mother is sociable and enjoys a good story (and, from my observation, the trashier the better), while my father is inquisitive and contemplative. I struggle with activities beyond my room, especially if they involve other people and the outside world, and I like to think of myself as curious and intelligent.

As people, they make sense. For writers, characters that make sense, that don’t trigger the reader’s “oh, bullshit” reaction and shatter their connection with the story, are what we should aspire for.

Those hobbies and the skills should be very natural to the character and arise from their situation and personality. A fisherman living on his own, far away from the intrigues of the rest of the world, may not only be skilled with fishing and maintaining the tools of his trade, but also capable of maintaining his home, making modifications and spot repairs to his clothes, growing vegetables and herbs to color his meals (and able to identify the local, wild flora capable of such when foraging), basic first aid utilizing the flora and what scraps he has saved away…And so on.

All listed like that, it seems like far too much for a character to be capable of, but all these elements complement that he is living alone and away of society, thus he would need to be very self-sufficient to survive for so long. People, likewise, have a diverse set of abilities that they cultivate to navigate their situation and continue to survive, perhaps even to thrive. And, often, these abilities share commonalities. The fisherman and his abilities center on his survival, thus they’re very hand-oriented and involve an understanding of the natural world.

What could break the character and, thus, his plausibility, is if the skills fall greatly outside the sphere in which he exists. For the fisherman, he may not possess the best social graces, or may be illiterate. Those two, perhaps, can be cultivated and explained with his history; perhaps the fisherman pulled a Thoreau and, once, had a lifestyle that required socializing and literature. Perhaps, when a wayward trader found the fisherman’s home, they traded the knowledge of crafting a sturdy lure from basic materials (or could be modified into eye-catching jewelry for the trader to later peddle to the wealthy) for learning to read, with the trader leaving him a book. The fisherman may spend his nights, when it is too dark to do other work, reading and rereading the words.

But having him capable of, say, flying a jumbo jet or participating in a poetry slam, or even having him conscious of societal issues and being capable of navigating the painful discourse surrounding such matters, require further explanation, thus endangering the pacing of the plot, or expecting the reader to resist calling “oh, bullshit” on the fisherman who needs only a shower to be a savvy, world-unifying savior figure, capable of capturing the hearts of the masses with some elegant words. Readers are not idiots and asking them to think as idiots (rather, asking them not to think at all) is an insult.

So I would like to attach a caveat to that “three hobby” suggestion with the advice that there should be some unifying element to these hobbies that makes sense, in context with the character’s characterization, setting, and age. If you have, say, a young peasant woman scraping for survival in an urban environment, her hobbies being gardening, horseback riding, and fashion will leave the reader wondering where in the Hell she had access to any of those three hobbies. Not only are they very divergent (you could argue gardening and fashion have an underlying eye for aesthetics and color theory and that horseback riding connects with gardening in that they’re both outdoor physical activities, but the three do not complement one another), two of those explicitly conflict with the urban setting.

But that is not to say it wouldn’t work. She may, at the story’s outset, be content with looking at the flowers in the public gardens, or peering through the iron bars of the noble estates to marvel at the rosebushes and watch their gardeners work. She may find horses fascinating and, when given the opportunity to interact with them on a better basis than observation and dodging being run-down by one, she takes to the task very well. She may gather scraps and discarded clothes and, clumsily, find her own distinct sense of style with their own aesthetic charm, perhaps attracting the attention of a seamstress who then takes in the girl and allows her to cultivate the other other two interests.

The harmony of a character in terms of characterization and personality, and between the character and their environment, are vital for a written piece to work. A writer asks much of their reader, even before they finish the first page. You cannot require them to ignore sense and logic in order to enjoy your story.

They will find something less inclined to ask them not to think.

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