Creative Interests and What to Do About Them

I was talking with Sarah a couple days ago, and in the midst of a rather elliptical conversation- is there any other kind?- I mentioned that I don’t understand how people can live without having creative interests. But apparently there are people in the world who get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, and get up and do the same thing the next day. Sometimes they go to the gym or watch a show on TV, if they need a little variety. But they never make anything, and they rarely take up a new hobby or interest. How boring.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. I grew up around creative people, and they’re all creative in slightly odd ways. I, the writer, am the most stereotypical creative in the family. My father is a barn builder, engineer, and woodworker; my brother is a mechanic, gunsmith, and blacksmith; my mother gardened, made clothes, and had the gift of taking junk and turning it into something useful. My extended family includes painters, quilters, knitters, soap and candlemakers, wood-lathe workers, and so on. All of us have vast collections of tools and materials that go along with having creative interests.

But there are people who have no idea what that’s like. I periodically wonder, how is that even possible? Then I swat myself upside the head. Because everyone is different, and just because someone has no creative interests, doesn’t mean they have no interests at all. Maybe they play a sport, or obsessively follow a TV show, or volunteer with their church. I wouldn’t call any of those activities creative; they don’t produce physical objects or ideas, but at least the people engaging in these activities are exercising their bodies and minds.

These people- the ones who have non-creative interests- are a majority of society, in my opinion, and are our audience. These are the people we have to pull into our books, to give them a reason keep turning pages. My family’s curiosity and drive to build things are not unique, but are still fairly rare. Ultra-creative people tend to read books, and may want similarly creative characters, but they’re a small audience. And there are people in the world who have no interests whatsoever, but they’re also a small audience.

Luckily, most people like to read about characters with some interests, creative or not. Just like they want their heroes to be as good or a little better than them (and for the life of me I can’t figure out which famous person said that- curse you, Google!) most of your audience wants to see characters who do things in their spare time. Depending on genre, your character might not have a lot of spare time in which to pursue his hobby, but even a brief mention that Sergeant Awesome McCoolName likes to cook (or work on his muscle car, or play basketball, or whatever) helps give the character some realism and makes the reader invested in his success.

Giving your character something to do can also distinguish your books from everyone else’s. One of my favorite romance novels as a teenager was a bog-standard regency bodice ripper in most aspects, but the heroine (a society lady) had a secret job writing a gossip column for a newspaper. This is a fairly standard plot nowadays, but at the time, it was the first time I’d encountered it, and I was so happy to discover a heroine who actually DID SOMETHING that I found myself loving the book  instead of reading it simply because it was a book and I’m a compulsive reader.

On the flip side, giving interests to a villain can be tricky. If you’re heavy-handed, it looks tacked on. And since villains usually have less screentime than the hero, you have less space to convey that Lord BlackDoom the Fourth rescues kittens in his spare time and knits little sweaters for them. And if you’re really heavy-handed, the reader starts to wonder why this guy is actually the villain. People still have trouble reconciling a certain German chancellor’s love of dogs with the way he treated ‘undesirable’ people; expect readers to scratch their heads if you write something similar. Fiction has to make sense, unlike real life. Play it safe and give the villain a morally neutral hobby like collecting fine art. Something that doesn’t show him caring for another living creature.

You can also turn a character’s interest on its head. Let’s say Lord BlackDoom the Fourth rescues kittens. How cute and non-villainous, the reader says. But as revealed later on, Lord BlackDoom the Fourth is actually adopting these kittens into his program of training ferocious guard-cats that attack the hero when he enters BlackDoom Fortress at the climax of the story. A protagonist’s interests can also come in handy, if properly foreshadowed. Sergeant Awesome McCoolName’s love of fine food can save his life when the femme fatale serves him poisoned caviar, and he notices that it has a sickly gray sheen.

As always, don’t be heavy-handed. If you mention a character’s hobby twice or more, savvy readers will expect it to have some bearing on events in the story (it doesn’t have to be part of the climax, but they’ll expect it to show up somewhere). Chekov’s Gun (if there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must be fired by the end of the third act) is even more sensitive, but it was originally developed for the stage, where the scenery is carefully managed. Modern readers are used to seeing little hints here and there in the story that have nothing to do with the plot; they only exist to set the scene.

And as usual, do your research. If your character is an expert on a particular subject, at least glance over a few related Wiki articles, so you can use the associated jargon properly. A lot of my characters are interested in horses for this exact reason (I get easily distracted when doing obligatory research, but I can trick myself into absorbing vast amounts of information if I tell myself that I’m doing it for fun).

Anyway. That was rather wide-ranging ramble, so now it’s your turn. What is the weirdest hobby you’ve ever given a character? Was it plot-relevant, or did you do it specifically to make the character interesting? Do you prefer to read about ultra-creative characters and people who have interests other than pursuing the villain/falling in love/solving the mystery, or are you satisfied by characters who go about their business with no mention of life outside the plot?


  1. Umm – weird hobby or interest? That would have to be the interest in choral singing, on the part of the hero in the first book and a half of the Adelsverein Trilogy. (Hero was an early Texas Ranger and cattle rancher, survivor of the Goliad Massacre.) But I had a totally logical reason – he was German-American, and the German settlers in Texas actually had choral-singing societies – the Sangerbund – and staged state-wide choral-singing competitions in the years before the Civil War.

  2. This is particularly relevant to me right now since I just finished my third short story about the same character and have been feeling that he’s starting to come alive to me and I want to flesh him out further in later stories.

    I put in the last story that he uses a “dating service” for female companionship, but I don’t have a good feel for who he is when he’s not working. I think I need to give him a hobby. Maybe he can tool leather, that would give him something to do with his hands while he’s listening to the radio in the evenings, and I can put in a running joke about everyone he knows already having all the bookmarks and cigarette cases they need.

    1. What genre does your character live in? If it’s one that’s likely to be violent, he might be able to put some of those tools to use in a tense situation; they’re really sharp.

      You could have fun with him very quietly, in true manly fashion, informing the villain that he’s going to put out the villain’s eye with an awl. Your character gets to be a badass, and the villain has his “Oh, shit; this guy is serious!” moment.

      1. It is a pretty violent world (think 1970’s cop shows, but with magic) but Erik’s not really that kind of character–he’s more of a “If I have to draw my piece then I’ve screw up somehow” kind of guy.

    2. As someone who has pursued leather tooling at one time. It’s hard to concentrate on anything while you’re doing it. The tools are sharp! And a mishit on a tooling tool can ruin a project.

      1. Yeah, I did some quick and dirty internet searches and it’s more involved than I realized at first. (Most things are.) I was thinking more of those premade projects where you thread leather thongs through other bits of leather that kids do in summer camp.

  3. My MC’s escape-from-it-all hobby is growing flowers, tho his gardening has really only been used as setting around whatever else of the moment. Still, it’s a bit of contrast for a guy whose only paying job has been ‘combat pilot’.

    1. One heroine LOVES gardening and spends the entire novel except for the winter on the road.

  4. Hmm, in one series, my current MC teaches martial arts and sword fighting for the exercise every morning before work . . . but I’ve never shown what he does when he finds some leisure time.

    My other series, my three main characters are cross-dimensional explorers, but one cooks, one paints and the third rides horses and is a former Olympic champ.

    1. I thought nearly getting killed, then sleeping for a year was his hobby. (At least he has someone guarding his body as he sleeps now. That was seriously starting to get creepy.)

  5. I think the weirdest is the alien AI who is right into the Toronto music scene from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. He knows -all- the bands and all the venues, like the Horseshoe Tavern, the Voodoo Club, RPM, and the El Mocambo (love those neon palms!) His name, obviously, is Frankie Venom. His Elder (combination wife/mentor/teacher) is Carole Pope.

  6. I’m messing with two books so one has a science teacher who loves swing dancing and the other book has a character learning to be a shepherdess. I guess her hobby is knitting but that’s not really weird.

    1. Knitting works. Hobbies don’t have to be weird. Mostly, it’s about giving your character something to do, so the reader doesn’t start thinking your character sits at home and stares at the same four walls when he’s not out slaying dragons and rescuing princesses.

      1. Oddly enough I was just rereading one of the last Laura Ingalls Wilder books and she spends some time helping a neighbor hold down a claim. And the woman who is the town dressmaker and Laura and an eleven year old child sit around and do nothing till Laura can’t stand it. It seems as if the woman doesn’t have any resources for something to do. No needle work. No straw hat making. There’s no garden or animals. I was very surprised.

  7. Just like they want their heroes to be as good or a little better than them (and for the life of me I can’t figure out which famous person said that- curse you, Google!)

    I’ve always heard it attributed to Aristotle

  8. It can be fun when you send your characters out on a quest and you wonder if you can give them hobbies they can carry out about the campfire.

    One sews. But you want to differentiate them. I think one whittles. . .

  9. I hadn’t noticed, but that’s what’s wrong with the series I’m currently reading. Nothing happens between the (relentless) action scenes. I’d been wondering why the characters weren’t grabbing me.

    What would be a good hobby on a spaceship? Sketching would probably work. Gaming doesn’t require anything that’s not already there.

    This also tends to be a problem with Marines on spaceships: What are they DOING? While the navy folks are running the ship, the marines tend to be lurking in “marine country” until they are needed.

    1. Scrimshaws!

      Except since they probably don’t have handy bone or ivory, it’s going to be done with materials at hand. Asteroid rock?

    2. Reading would be the best hobby for a spaceship….. And I think I’ve heard that Marines are encouraged to read various books, e.g. On leadership or biographies.

    3. “This also tends to be a problem with Marines on spaceships: What are they DOING? While the navy folks are running the ship, the marines tend to be lurking in “marine country” until they are needed.”

      Look at the Honor Harrington books for some ideas. First, the Marines are an integral part of the crew for such things as damage control, manning weapons, etc. Second, they have to do a certain amount of PT / training on things like vac suits, HTH, small arms, etc. Point being, a Marine is a specialized job too, and to stay sharp you have to actually practice.

  10. In my book series, one of the female characters has tried for decades to develop a hobby. She’s failed miserably at everything she’s tried from singing to pottery and everything in between. It’s especially frustrating to her since she’s highly talented with combat magic and fencing, but considers herself a dove not a hawk.

    A male character in the same series has just taken up poetry as part of his anger management program. )

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