I spent last Sunday with my regular writing group, performing a novel break on one of the member’s work-in-progress. If you’re not familiar with the technique, think of it as a gathering of authors disassembling a novel into its component pieces and poking and prodding them in an effort to ensure that each serves the needs of the book, advances the story, informs the characters, and so on. The process can be an incredibly powerful tool, particularly if you’ve got a group of authors who are experienced in the technique (it’s one of the things that gets taught up at the Taos Toolbox Master Class run by Walter Jon Williams, but I digress).
A consequence of this experience was that a day later I found myself musing on the things authors choose to include and not include when describing/fleshing out a character. And that got me wondering about the hobbies of fictional characters.
Of course everyone knows what a “hobby” is, but just to be thorough I went to wikipedia, that everyman’s epic online resource, which drilled it down into a variety of things including:
- Collecting (e.g., Stamps, Coins)
- Making / Tinkering (e.g., Model Building, Cooking)
- Participation in Activities (e.g., Outdoor recreation, Gardening)
- Liberal Arts Pursuits (e.g., Dancing, Reading)
- Sports and Games (e.g., Flag Football, Parcheesei)
Everyone has some hobbies, whether they engage in them with relentless passion or dabble only occasionally, and so by extension we should expect the same to be true of fictional characters, particularly if their authors have attempted/intended to make them well rounded.
But how often does this actually happen?
I’m finding myself hard pressed to think of regular examples of this where the hobby in question is not seen simply to set up a plot point later in the story. With a nod to the famous gun example, I’m choosing to call this kind of usage, Chekov’s Hobby.
We’ve all seen it, the numismatist in Act I who by the time of Act III reveals that sesterces simply weren’t around in Rome during the 5th century A.D., and thus the museum piece is a forgery! Or the hobbyist working on building a ship in a bottle when she’s first introduced, only to be on hand at some critical juncture to point out something about three-masted schooners that is critical to the plot. And on and on. Much more often than not, when a character is demonstrated to have a hobby, it’s Chekov’s Hobby, and not present simply to flesh out the character.
Now I suspect some of you reading this may cry “foul!” and cite the doctrine that everything in a story should serve more than one purpose, and thus it’s perfectly fair to include a hobby as part of a character’s make-up and have it serve double duty as support for a future reveal or plot point. And I think that’s fair to some extent, but only if we see it occurring in that manner as often as we see other bits of character embellishment and description used in the same way. You know, things like hair color and handedness and sexual identity and religious affiliation and favorite ice cream flavor and which side of a king-size bed they prefer to sleep on.
But we don’t, usually, and on the oh-so-rare occasions when we do, they stand out as really marked examples, exceptions to the rule as it were.
This is less of a problem (to the extent that you see it as a problem at all) in main characters, because they have more breadth and agency (and more “screen time”) in which to show off such nonessential aspects of their character and background. Not every element we see has to be important to the plot, though I’d argue that it all factors into the overall personality. It’s common to give main characters “quirks,” which in turn makes them more individual and realistic, and hobbies make for good quirks. But evidence of hobbies among secondary characters feels much less common to me, despite authors tending to include physical descriptions of these same characters. It’s gotten to the point with me that when I do see a secondary character reveal a hobby, I immediately begin wondering how and where that hobby will factor into the resolution of the story, because otherwise why did the author include mention of it? And the reason that’s a problem is because it’s taken me out of the story and left me looking at the meta-story.
I realize that, as part of the contract with the reader, the author is trying to play fair and not burden the reader with a lot of extraneous information that isn’t relevant. But there’s a difference between having an opening scene where we meet two dozen named characters of whom twenty will never be seen again and adding a sentence or two to show someone knitting or doing the crossword or dusting a shelf containing commemorative plates, secure in the knowledge that the evidence of these hobbies exist only to show these secondary characters have rounded lives and the particulars won’t be mentioned again in service to the plot.
Seriously, is it too much to ask that authors work a bit harder and not succumb to Chekov’s Hobby? Because I have to say, the joy of finding a character in Act I who just so happens to enjoy carving variant chess pieces (like unicorns and half-elephants) is crushed when the murder weapon in Act III turns out to be a whittling knife.