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?