A fundamental part of being a human being is the time spent doing mundane things. When was the last time one of your stories included day-to-day activities? Today we’ll be talking about how and why to incorporate less-adventurous content in your writing.
How much of your day is exciting?
Reading a story is supposed to feel exciting. No one wants to read the bland story of a corporate drone arranging his cubicle, popping anti-depressants, and filing paperwork. The other side of the spectrum, however, is the Action Hero Effect (AHE). AHE comes about when the heroes never need to eat, drink, sleep, bathe, use the restroom, shave, change their clothes, repair gear, cry it out, or catch their breath.
When you think about your current life, though, how much time do you spend doing these non-exciting but extremely essential things? Would you trust someone who said they never had to eat, drink, or sleep? How much can you learn about a person by watching their daily routine?
The reason the AHE-style is popular is because no one wants to spend ten pages reading about the character using the bathroom in silence, scanning the news feed on a smart phone, or chuckling to himself as he texts memes to his friends for three consecutive hours.
So, here’s a question: how much do you identify with a streamlined character? How real does that character feel to you? Can you imagine the inner workings of their mind and soul? Their hopes and dreams? They have a face and a voice, sure, but how much depth is there? And the real question is: would you want to read an entire book series starring them?
Characters who never take down-time, relax, heal, or do normal activities tend to feel more like archetypes than dynamic beings.
The AHE-style keeps things exciting and fast-paced, which is great for single-shot stories like pulps. Even lengthier collections of pulps like Robert E Howard’s Conan series can get away with this streamlining because the stories are designed to boil along at a blistering pace for a severely limited number of pages. But if you want readers to settle inside the head of your character and live there for six novels, you need to make sure that character is believable. Part of that is showing mundane activities.
What did you do today?
In action flicks, there is a lot of time that we gloss over. Some movies (usually not AHE movies) actually do show the character taking a quick shower, brushing their teeth, and reflecting on what has happened so far. Usually this is set to a slow musical score. We get to see the character’s bathroom and bedroom, which reflects their self-discipline and preferences. Who could have guessed that the action hero collects porcelain birds?
So what sort of things do you include in these scenes, and how do you do it in such a way that your readers aren’t bored to tears?
Shaving the face is a stereotypical masculine daily activity. Do your male characters gather around the stream and shave together in the morning? This is a perfect time to sit and talk, since few people are fist-fighting or running for their lives while shaving. Do the female characters shave? They can be included in this. People tend to find one spot around water and do all of their morning activities, including cleaning their teeth, shaving, brushing their hair and putting it up for the day, rinsing out their dirty clothes, and arranging their gear. All of this is time spent together and spent talking. Maybe your characters are forced to overnight at a sleazy hotel and share one bathroom for the whole floor. How do they figure out who gets mirror time first? Do the four sisters crowd in around the vanity all at once and play a game of Twister as they arrange their hair?
People need to bathe. Otherwise, action heroes reek of blood and body odor. Go spend a month hiking around outside in the forest wearing only a single outfit with one pair of socks and one pair of underwear, fighting for your life, and then come back to civilization and see how many people want to spend time in a small room with you. Who would hire someone they couldn’t spend any time around without vomiting? Bathing is another social time as well. Plenty of stories influenced by Japanese storytelling make use of public bath scenes to show their characters interacting in more vulnerable settings. Do characters act prudish, or outlandishly carefree? If an enemy attacks during bath time, the battle is going to feel a lot more desperate.
Do your characters have to shop for replacement clothes? A shirt can only take so many acid burns before it ceases to be a shirt. When your pants burn down to Daisy Dukes, you’re gonna get some looks from the more conservative members of society, and the Queen certainly won’t meet with you when you’re dressed inappropriately. How many outfits do your characters have, and what are the differences? If they never change their clothes, how long do they last? Boots wear out when you’re walking across lava and acid pools, or shredding them on razor rocks. How many shoes do your characters own, anyway? Do they have a nice pair for upper-class meetings and business appointments?
Let your characters go shopping once in a while. “Max strolled into town, and it quickly became apparent that people were staring. At first, he thought it was because of his weapons, but he began to notice the women giggling behind their hands and pointing at his legs. It occurred to Max that the green dragon’s acid bath had been less than kind to his outfit. Fortunately, he had some coins jingling in his pocket.” Your characters can spend some time discussing recent events while finding clothing which fits their style, or even finally decide what their style is. “Everyone’s head whipped around when they heard the hulking Barbarian ask, ‘Do you have these small-clothes in pink?’” Arguing with clothing merchants or setting up custom orders can give opportunities for dialogue. The best part is, there is a lot of characterization that goes into defining a fashion style. Imagine the serious Paladin getting stuck with a puffy shirt for the entire second Act because it’s the last available shirt in town.
When was the last time you hung out with friends and then settled in, ate dinner, and immediately fell asleep all in the same room? You didn’t. You found activities and games to play, ways to pass the time and enjoy companionship. People talk, people engage in hobbies or play cards. Around the campfire at night, what are your characters doing? A few suggestions: sewing holes closed in their only shirt, brushing out their hair for bed, bracing up their wobbly axe. If one character is nimble with their fingers, maybe they do all the sewing for the party. We’re looking at you, pickpockets and scoundrels. When was the last time your otherwise standoffish rogue character tended to the personal needs of party members in such a way?
Won’t that get annoying?
It could, if you use it too often. For example, if you state clearly every single bit of hygiene maintenance the characters perform. Forcing your readers to endure this every single in-story day is going to be miserable, and will make your work boring. Likewise if you’re including shaving scenes just for the sake of showing that your characters are hygienic. There’s a reason the streamlined AHE-style is so common.
There needs to be tension inside the scenes and reasons for their presence in your work which contribute to the overall story. Maybe your characters don’t solve the riddle of how to defeat the villain while flossing their teeth, but two rivals forced to sit together while they shave in one communal bucket of water can definitely resolve a misunderstanding through dialogue and agree to work together so the final battle runs a lot more effectively.
The best way to introduce shaving scenes is to use them as sequel scenes to your big showpieces and battles. Use the fact that people bathe and shave and play card games to fill the space with dialogue as the characters process what’s on their minds. They can discuss how they feel about a recent death as they all gamble over cards before bed.
A few quick questions to get you started:
- What is each character’s hygiene schedule and routine?
- If their mind is occupied with routine tasks, what thoughts or recent events might each characters’ drifting mind turn to?
- What follow-up from previous scenes might characters engage in when everyone has some spare time to talk?
- Pretend your characters are all at the river shaving and washing up in the morning. That last battle is still fresh in their minds. How are they handling those memories? Any change in strategy they’d like to discuss with party members? Things they learned from the battle?
- What things are worrying your characters that they might ask opinions on when they’re forced to sit and wait?
- Are your characters comfortable shaving their upper thighs out in front of everyone? Or are they more timid and reserved and hide behind a rock?
- How does your character feel about mustaches?
Don’t let the streamlined AHE-style drain the verisimilitude out of your stories. Shaving scenes are great opportunities for follow-up processing of intense scenes, and provide innumerable chances for characterization and dialogue. These are also times for characters to share how they feel about each other, comfort each other, argue, cry, and hash out compromises. All of these interactions give the readers a peek inside the inner workings of the character’s heart and bring your cast to life.
Don’t let these opportunities for character depth and relationship growth slip by. Start using shaving scenes in your stories today.