Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 1, 2023

Add a Dose of Relatable Dimension to Your Character

by Miffie Seideman

As authors, we know our characters need to be multi-dimensional, with emotions, characteristic traits, backstories, and flaws that speak to our readers. So, we spend countless hours designing characters. A number of great tips can be found in these previous posts for creating characters that are genuine, strong, or stand out.

One additional way to create a relatable character with dimension is to give them a simple trait, quirk, or habit—one that resonates with readers. Just a little something to bring the character off the page and make them memorable.

For example, what quirks, traits, or habits come to mind when you think of these characters?

An often-overlooked approach is to give a character a habit involving socially popular drugs.

Not all drugs require big, bold, and deadly scenes

Think writing about drug habits is all about hard core drugs, overdoses, and addiction?

Think again!

While an overdose scene might get you one page-turning moment, characters with regular habits involving socially popular drugs can make your character pop off the pages and into your readers memory.

Below are 7 tips to help you develop a realistic habit for your own character.

1. Everyday drugs as a prescription to a memorable character

What are “socially popular” or “everyday” drugs? Well, that definition is actively changing these days, but in general, it means typical everyday substances that are tightly woven into the fabric of society and to which the reader will relate, in some fashion, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • E-cigarettes or Vaping
  • Caffeine

Did you know about 80% of the US adult population drinks coffee every single day? How’s that for being relatable to your reader? And despite the health hazards, 40 million US adults and another 3 million US mid-high and high schoolers smoke. Over 2.5 million teens use electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). I’m not advocating making any kind of smoking look cool to teens, but if your character succumbs, it may evoke memories from your reader’s own experience or struggles.

More recently, with expanding social norms and legal changes in some US states, the growing list of socially popular drugs can be argued (in some places), to also include:

  • Marijuana
  • Psilocybin mushrooms (“Magic mushrooms”)-especially microdoses
  • LSD-in microdoses

From medical to recreational use of marijuana, dispensaries are becoming more commonplace, some even including a courtyard to smoke the “flower” right there. The smell of marijuana is also becoming more prevalent. For example, in a recent stroll through Washington D.C., the aroma of marijuana was very apparent.

The hallucinogens in psilocybin mushrooms and LSD are growing in popularity, especially in tiny (“micro”) doses thought to help depression. These drugs are also part of the new trend of “psychedelic parenting. (You can read more about that here.)

2. A little goes a long way

Subtle habits integrated into your character’s daily life can make them seem more human than fiction. And when your reader is curious as to why the character has that specific habit…ah, now they’re starting to care about your character’s backstory.

So, skip the heroin and fentanyl and consider developing a character that puffs on a cigar or takes sips of his favorite nightly bourbon by the fireplace.

Cigar as a character prop
Photo by Valiant Made on Unsplash

3. Putting the concept to work for you

The transformation to a character with a quirk or habit isn’t very hard and only takes a few simple steps. Just a few details added to the scene can be enough. Too much detail is unnecessary and runs the risk of making an error that is obvious to your reader (unless you have a good working knowledge of that particular habit.)

Simply begin with a scene and play with what habit and how much detail to add, until you get the affect you want.

For example:

  • Step 1: Before

She smirked at him, then turned away.

  • Step 2: Weaving in the character’s habit

She smirked, blowing a plume of smoke into his face, then tapped the dangling ash into his Grey Goose martini, before turning away.

4. Packing a punch

When you look past the smoke (see what I did there?), these few added details have not only enriched the scene, but given the reader a wealth of information about each character, such as:

  • His upscale liquor hints at money
  • Her passive-aggressive behavior towards him hints at their antagonistic relationship

(And she’s either a real jerk or pretty boss, depending on what the reader thinks).

5. Morphing the scene

If you want to alter the underlying message even more, continue to change a few details and reassess the outcome.  

For example, consider how these modifications would change our scenario further:

  • What if her smoke smells skunky- hinting she’s puffing on marijuana?
  • If she reaches across the table to swipe his bourbon and chug it down in one gulp, what does that convey?
  • If he leans in to light her cigarette, what does that say about him? And what does it say about their relationship, if she expects him to? 

6. Putting it all together

This is what our initial starter scene has morphed into:

She fell into the chair, grabbed his bourbon, and downed the dark liquid in a single gulp. Her fingers shook as she fumbled for a cigarette, then leaned toward him, waiting. When his lighter clicked, she tipped her cigarette into the flame and inhaled deeply. Her eyes fixed on his, before she blew a plume of smoke into his face and turned away, smirking.

Now, we have very different characters and dynamics.

7. What to avoid for success

A throwaway habit:

As Larry Brooks wisely said in Story Engineering, don’t just add a quirk, habit, or trait for the sake of adding…well, a quirk, habit, or a trait.

Add it for a reason.

If our character chugs that bourbon, puts the glass down, and we never care about it again, there was no reason to add that to the scene. It’s not nearly as important that our nervous character chugs that bourbon, as why she did. Or why she smokes, in the first place. What happened to bring her to this point in her life?  

When I taught drama to teens, I always asked them to consider their character’s motivation for any particular action, because what the character did and how they did it needed to make sense with who they were.

If your character is always drinking lots and lots of coffee, it needs to be because he has a real need for it. Maybe he works double shifts and is exhausted. Maybe he drank so much as a student, that he needs a lot of caffeine to have any effect. Maybe he has narcolepsy.

But there is a reason.

Avoid Discontinuity

The kind of habit you choose needs to make sense. Otherwise, a character-drug mismatch can frustrate your readers. When deciding how to develop your character’s habit, consider the following:

1. The character’s age

Habits vary greatly by age—not only because of age, but because of the social norms the person was exposed to while growing up. It’s more likely your teen character will be slamming tequila shots than sipping an Old Fashioned. Your grandma isn’t probably playing beer pong (although I know some that do, actually).

2. The personality of your character

Would it have made sense for James Bond to be sipping on Cosmos? Probably not.  

3. The character’s socioeconomic status

Pick something your character can afford as a habit. A $7 drive-through latte is not going to ring true if your character is barely keeping the household finances together…unless her spendy habits are exactly why her credit cards get declined. However, a wealthy wall-street executive might not think twice about ordering $100 shots of DeLeón La Leóna tequila.  

4. Geographic location of your story

Drive-through lattes are a norm in America, but in Buenos Aires, your character’s more likely to be relaxing at a café table, enjoying an espresso. 

5. The historical setting

A little research here can come in handy to make sure the habit you pick fits with the historical timeline of your story. Vaping won’t fit into a story in the 1930’s unless your character is involved in time travel.

Exercise: Now you try it!

It’s time to get a chance to play with your own characters. Take a scene from your manuscript and add a habit to one of your characters using a drug socially popular during the story’s time period. How might the edits change the reader’s perception of your character? Is the scene or character richer and more memorable?

It would be fun to have you share your before and after scene in the comments!

You’re in good company:

Some Famous Examples

If you’re interested in seeing how some well-read authors and screenwriters have used this method to create memorable characters, here’s a list to get you started: 

  • Sherlock Holmes: His habit involved a 7% solution of cocaine, which at the time was considered more socially acceptable and non-addictive.
  • James Bond: How many bartenders roll their eyes at martinis ordered “shaken not stirred?”
  • Cruella De Vil: Honestly, even kids pretend to wave around her cigarette holder. I’m not saying that’s a goal, but definitely memorable.
  • Indiana Jones: Who can forget Marion’s drinking competition in the bar? The said more about her character than any number of words on the page could.
  • Casa Blanca: Rick Blaine loved his smokes and liquor.
  • Sex in the City: Carrie made Cosmos very trendy in real life society.
  • Arrested Development: Lucille Bluth was synonymous with her vodka.
  • Scrubs: J.D. was known for loving appletinis.
  • The Great Gatsby: Upscale cocktail parties and mint juleps lace the pages.
  • Moses Wine - I read my first Moses Wine detective novel in high school. All these many decades later, I still remember what I memorized to get me though final exams: “Moses Wine does hash.”

What scenes would you redo in your work?  Join us in the comments below and share a line or two of your rewritten scene.

* * * * * *

About Miffie

Miffie Seideman has been a pharmacist for over 30 years, with a passion for helping others. Her research articles have appeared in several professional pharmacy journals. She blended her passion for pharmacy and her love of writing into THE GRIM READER: Putting Your Characters in Peril (A Pharmacist’s Guide For Authors), which will be released January 2024 by Indiana University Press (Twitter: @iupress) and Dan Crissman (Twitter @DanCrissman). More information can be found HERE   She’s represented by Amy Collins with Talcott Notch Literary Services.  

An avid triathlete, Miffie spends countless hours training in the arid deserts of Arizona, devising new plots for her upcoming fantasy love story. She can be found hanging around her website http://GrimReaders.com offering tips to writers and at Twitter @MiffieSeideman…you know…tweeting. 

Photo credits:

  • Top Photo - Razyph from Getty Photos,
  • Smoker: Unsplash - credit above
  • Espresso with biscotti: Miffie Seideman

17 comments on “Add a Dose of Relatable Dimension to Your Character”

  1. Thank you for your post! It has totally inspired an important cup of morning coffee I overlooked in my WIP!

  2. Thank you for reminding me of at least one of the things my characters are missing. "Leave your mother alone. She hasn't had her coffee yet."

    Microdosing ... I'll look into that. Is it the new valium?

    Lots to think about.

    Great post, Miffie! I love the title of your book.

  3. Love your examples, Miffie. Microdosing? Good grief, when I retired from my nursing career I lost touch with this kind of "trend." You've inspired me to do better in keeping up but also reminded me to add at least one character with a quirky trait to my current WIP. Thanks!

    1. I’ve always admired nurses-the bulk of the work fell to them, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Using low dose psychedelics for depression has some merit, but to make parenting less stressful? That’s a tough pill to swallow! Good luck with your WIP.

  4. I prefer not to use substance abuse addictions in my writing, other than caffeine. It can be triggering for some people and it doesn't fit with my stories.

  5. I have a character in my Spaceport series who is avoiding caffeine. In a stressful situation, someone hands her a cup of coffee and she curls around it as if it is her security blanket.

    Love this post, Miffie! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight with us!

    1. Thanks, Lisa! I absolutely love (and relate to) the imagery of coffee as a security blanket. Your java-drinking readers will definitely relate to the feeling of getting that first cup after abstaining. Thanks for sharing!

    2. You KNOW I love this visual, Lisa! That will be me on the other side of chemo.

      *lustful look at coffee cup* Come here and BE with me! It's been so long...

      1. I understand the joy of coffee... And I'm absolutely not supposed to have it. I think it is cruel when doctors take away our safety blanket and tell us to be calm...

  6. Thank you for the tips. When you mentioned cigars, my first thought was Peter Falk playing Columbo in the tv series. Not a literary character as such, but made unforgettable by the cigar and other quirks like his rumpled raincoat and battered car.

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