Rules of Writing VI: nothing is better than cheap tricks

 6. Thou shalt not substitute mundane action for genuine character development.

This rule is as true of writing as it is of prostitution. Only when an author indulges in cheap character tricks, he is merely compromising his novel rather than his immune system.

What sort of cheap character tricks am I talking about here? What is “mundane action”? The easiest example to point out is the most commonly seen one, which is activity related to food. I don’t know the exact point at which it began to infest literature and film alike, but it seems as if there must have been an influential writer’s workshop somewhere that convinced a number of writers that showing their characters engaged in pedestrian tasks, particularly eating, was necessary for quality character development. It has become as de rigueur these days as the single sex scene in which the beautiful, large-breasted redhead inexplicably seduced the unsuspecting scientist was in 1980s SF.

(It would be interesting to research what percentage of female characters in 1980s science fiction are redheads, have improbably large breasts for their frame, or have sex with scientists.  My guess is 50 percent, 75 percent, and 85 percent.)

Gone are the good old days of classic SF when the only mention of food in the manly hero’s mind was when he absent-mindedly popped the Nutra-100 pill that provided him with all the sustenance he required for the length of his desperate rocketship battle against the dastardly villains on Bursalon IX.  Now we are treated to page after page of people going to restaurants, sitting at the table and engaging in trivial banter; every other character in the movies seems to be either munching on an apple or mumbling dialogue while spraying a mouthful of crumbs.

It is strange that they are so seldom seen with their hand in a big bag of Doritos, is it not? Perhaps some things strike a little too close to home.

The idea of portraying the act of eating, as far as I can tell, is to provide character depth by portraying their lives more fully. We can be grateful, I suppose, that this practice has not often been extended to include the copious time spent sleeping or on the toilet, despite the same logic applying equally well to either activity.

But whether this cheap and pedestrian device is the result of workshops or simply more female writers bringing conventional female interests to the fore, the point is that it seldom effectively serves the purpose it is apparently supposed to serve. While the food fixation does work for some authors, such as George R.R. Martin, whose feasts were the most interesting part of his recent crime against his own series, it should be kept in mind that Martin is a fat man who has an unusually strong interest in food. If you’re a fat bastard who daydreams about his next meal while still engaged in the current one, fine, devote 10 percent of your page count to meals. It may well work for you.

But just as people who don’t know anything about guns shouldn’t attempt to imitate Larry Corriea’s lovingly precise descriptions of projectile firearms, people who aren’t singularly obsessed with food shouldn’t try to make the cuisine an intrinsic part of their world-building or their character development. The reason is that what is an effective, colorful aspect of the fictional world for the genuinely interested author becomes a thin and unconvincing waste of paragraphs, or even pages, that add nothing to the story.

Yes, people eat. They spend a fair amount of time doing that. But eating is not much more interesting than sleeping or urinating, so unless the food is poisoned, the urine is radioactive, or the sleep lasts for 100 years – thereby making it an element that is relevant to the plot – don’t fool yourself into thinking you are writing a deeper, more complete character sketch by showing that the character does, in fact, do what everyone already assumed he did.

The error is in focusing on showing what the character does instead of showing what the character does that is of probable interest to the reader. For example, if a character is big and muscular, then he likely engages in an activity that enables him to maintain his musculature. Perhaps he lifts weights at a gym. Perhaps he wrestles Tigurleon space crocodiles. In either case, simply showing him engaged in that activity isn’t enough, the activity should reveal something about his character. Does he clean up the weights afterwards or does he leave them strewn messily about? Does he express himself politely or with violence when someone is hogging the space crocodiles and makes him wait at the crocodile wrestling ranch? Is he careful in utilizing the proper safety equipment or does he promptly get in over his head and require embarrassing assistance?

These are character-revealing depths that are very difficult to explore when one begins with “Mmm, pizza sounds good! I sure hope you didn’t order anchovies. I hate anchovies!” No reader, in the entire history of literature, has ever cared whether a character prefers ketchup or mayonnaise on their fries. The preference says nothing about the character. And the sophisticated reader will recognize what you are doing and roll his eyes at your clumsy ineptitude.

You have a limited number of opportunities to portray your characters in their natural environments that are not integral to the plot. Make the most of them. And if you can’t be bothered to not only make it real, but make it real in a convincing and interesting manner, it’s better not to bother at all. It’s better to focus instead on the other elements of the book rather than half-assing the character development in a cliched and predictable manner.

Trivial preferences are not character development.