*Disclaimer: “We’ve got a long post here, Jim.”
“What, can’t you shorten it or something?”
It’s been awhile since I’ve discussed the characters writer’s love to create. Without characters our stories won’t be interesting. Even non-fiction has to have that human element. Next to all those other funny writing necessities (like plot, conflict, setting, and other pesky minor details), I personally would rank it number one in significance. Which means, in my mind, requires a bit of dedication and attention to detail.
I read a lot of blog posts, articles, and writing books talking about the basics. How the character looks. What they wear. What they do, even how they speak as being the focus for these articles. All useful (and necessary) information, but I want to talk about tonight an aspect that I don’t feel is discussed very often. The inner character, their inner issues and quirks. In short, their obsessions, addictions, and superstitions.
Before talking about how it relates to characters, I want to give a bit of detail about each of them from my own perspective. Ready? Great!
Obsession – the state of being obsessed with someone or something.
Sometimes, while I think most people hate to admit it, we become obsessed. As writers, probably the type we know the best is fandom, where fan’s become obsessed about a series, be them movies or TV (see above – I couldn’t help it, sorry!). The obsession can get extreme and range from good to bad. Anyone who wishes to gain popularity as a writer, we have to acknowledge the possibility that we may be subjected to the same obsession. In a way, perhaps, we hope for it too without thinking about the full magnitude of what that would mean.
But – that’s only one type of obsession. There are many out there in a wide variety of degrees. I think one of my favorite movies featuring a character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is As Good As It Gets featuring Jack Nicolson (love him). It’s one of many movies that show how much OCD can affect the lives of those with severe cases.
With that said, I also believe everyone has a little bit of OCD in them. For me, mine comes out when I’m traveling on vacation. I’ll check the travel arrangements a gazillion times, typically have the family packed up a week before it’s necessary with lists upon lists to make sure we take every thing. To say I become neurotic is an understatement. I am also that way when it comes to moves, in fact I get worse because of the magnitude of it.
I know another person who cannot leave her house if there is a single wrinkle in her clothes. She even irons her jeans. So you see, obsessions can range in subject, application, and neurosis.
Addiction – the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.
Addiction is a harder subject to discuss because we don’t want to admit to it. We use easier words like ‘vice’ or ‘fixation’ some even label it as a ‘craving’. For example, people are addicted to chocolate or, to take myself for example, I’m addicted to coffee. I’m also addicted to the written word. (“Ohhh, so that’s why you’re a writer?” Yep).
Each of the ones I listed society has protected itself by laughing at them. Being addicted to chocolate is silly, right? Perhaps. Unless you ask someone who is diabetic, then not so much. For the addiction to substances that are not illegal or perceived as destructive to anything but our own health, we tend to justify it. To come up with a reason or a person/situation to blame for our addiction. Using myself as an example, coffee. It has caffeine which I drink [need] because it helps my migraines. Doctor’s have been trying to convince me for years that it’s in my head. Maybe it is, but I continue it because so far I haven’t seen proof that I’m wrong, only supposition.
A simple justification that, again, seems harmless. However, there are addictions that fall into the other category. Alcohol, illegal and/or prescription drugs. Some say that our addictions have grown to such an epidemic proportions that it’s time to put a stop to it. I read today an article discussing putting a tax on calories for drinks. The irony of this is that I’ve been playing a game on my tablet that is about a sugar ban in a city… Funny at first, but when you pair it with that article – well, maybe it’s not.
With that said, throughout the whole range of silly to serious addictions, like our little bits of OCD floating in our personalities, we also have a mirror addiction that can (probably frequently) feeds into the obsession. Symbiosis anyone?
Superstition – a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.
This one is a bit tricky because I found two definitions for it, but I think I’ll go with this one as I feel it is more relevant. We all know the usual suspects when it comes to superstition.
Don’t let a black cat cross your path.
After spilling salt, throw some over your shoulder.
Taking a picture of someone without their permission means you want to steal their soul.
Probably the biggest one in my opinion would have to be – Friday the 13th. Never fails, every time it comes up I will hear every bad thing happen on that day blamed on that it is Friday the 13th! I officially blame horror movies for the severity of that one, but anyway.
The few I listed, plus more, are the commonly discussed ones, but I personally believe it goes deeper than that. The reason I do is because I have a superstition of my own. It may or may not be shared by others, but it has been proven to work for me so I keep doing it.
When I’m coding and wrestling with a piece of difficult code, I keep worrying at it until it cooperates. When I succeed, and I mean every time, I throw my arms in the air like a ref calling a touch down (for American football my European friends, not your version of football which we call soccer) then do a little victory dance in front of my computer for a minute. Usually involves a small little shoulder jive to go with it.
Despite looking silly, I know that by doing this – the code will continue to work and won’t break on me a minute later. If I don’t do it, the code will break. There is no reason for it to break, when I go to see why it broke I typically don’t find anything wrong as I save and look again to find it’s working again. That bloody trend will continue until I do the dance, at which point the coding gods are satisfied. I sometimes think of it as sacrificing my decorum in the workplace for a minute to ensure it continues.
I know, it sounds ridiculous. I had a boss who stared at me like I lost my mind but I know it works! So – I keep doing it.
Now that we have my thoughts, plus a few definitions to make life interesting, should I get to the point? Considering you’ve stuck with me this long, I suppose I should.
In building/creating our characters, it’s important to remember that each of them is more than their looks. The ugly to beautiful, male to female, Hannibal [Lecter} to Ghandi, each of them has an inner self for lack of a better word. I don’t want to classify it as a darkness because that’s not always true. My superstitious dance when coding certainly doesn’t fit that description and a quirk has taken on a negative connotation over the years.
Perhaps it is better to say it’s the aspect that makes us unique. Put identical twins side by side and on the outside they are the same, but when you get to know them we find what sets them apart. One of the three I mention may over power the other. It could be a ritual before going to bed that includes being a contortionist (I believe the PC term is Yoga, but we all know the truth) or the endless stashes of nutri-grain bars around the house. People can even be addicted to exercise (this shouldn’t have surprised me when I read that particular article – yet it did).
While I don’t think it is necessary to have all three categories filled for the characters we write, I do think we should have at least two out of three. By including that inner self, the aspect of uniqueness that can’t be mixed in exactly the same proportions from twin to twin, we give our characters greater depth. They become a whole person, and even if none of those bits make it into the story to be consumed by readers, when writers are able to say to themselves:
“Yes, Mark is obsessed with having clean finger nails.” or “Wow, Gloria really cares about personal hygiene.” We find material to add, the tiny details that has Mark with a nail file on him at all times so he can keep those nails clean or Gloria carrying with her a complete shower kit with several stashed in her car, at the office, and at her boyfriends place (okay, that one makes more sense because they’ve been dating for 2 years – but still). It also provides a bit of teasing between characters who have a long history together. When Alex is looking around for her pen because she always forgets to carry one, Mark hands it to her without a word or expects one in return.
The tiny details, that sometimes seem like a bother to worry about until you realize that you’re at the fifth ‘she/he said’ tag in a row…
So, how about it, what are some of the obsessions, addictions, and/or superstitions that your main character(s) have that help enliven the story?