When writers seek to humanize and bring their characters to life, they can be tempted to fall into what I call the “daily routine trap.” Writers who fall prey to this trap typically over-explain the daily or mundane actions of their characters, usually in an attempt to move them from point A to point B in the narrative.
This trap is especially dangerous for sci-fi and fantasy writers who describe epic quests and journeys, but it can lure writers of any genre. It is easy to include mundane actions—especially eating and drinking—that feel essential to the writer but tedious and arbitrary to the reader.
I recently read a futuristic dystopian novel that I found quite compelling, except I couldn’t get over how often I read about characters’ meals and how they were cooked—I mean every meal. The author’s objective was obviously to convey how dramatically different diets and kitchen labor would be in the new, regressive, agrarian society; and it was effective. But after the third five-course feast, my interest kept stalling as I tried to get through what felt like menu descriptions from an overeager waiter.
As an editor and avid reader, I see this happen often. Maybe it’s because of my lowbrow sense of humor, but I have often paused my reading to wonder, “Why do I have to know every time a character eats? If I’m not told, does that mean they don’t eat? Since I’m not told about it, does this mean that the character never goes to the bathroom?”
Presumably, when, what, and how a heroine eats makes her human or relatable, but her restroom habits make her gross.
However, descriptions of any mundane task can detract from character personas and stories as much as potty breaks.
Example 1: Waking up beside the extinguished campfire, Lync slowly recognized his surroundings and remembered his mission. After eating a quick breakfast, he shouldered his pack and continued his difficult journey.
I read transitions like this all of the time. Here, we are told that Lync eats and shoulders his pack to get him from sleep (point A) back to his journey (point B). However, most readers would assume that a big-deal hero would eat if he’s hungry and not forget his stuff all over the place like a five year old. If the writer’s objective is to get Lync on the road, there are more efficient ways to get him there that also offer some character reflection.
Revised example 1: Waking up beside the extinguished campfire, Lync slowly recognized his surroundings and remembered his mission. Groggily starting on the path, he wondered if he was prepared to see it through.
Example 2: Anna felt flustered as she hung up with her lawyer and wanted a drink. She reached for an open bottle of wine, poured herself a glass, and drank deeply. She needed to calm her nerves and think about what to do.
I might include this play-by-play of how Anna gets a drink if, say, I want to establish that Anna is an alcoholic and is always grabbing at readily available, open bottles of booze. But if I simply want to convey Anna’s angst, I can trust readers to assume that Anna knows how to pour a drink—she’s not on an infomercial. Skip the chores and get to the angst:
Revised example 2: Anna felt flustered as she hung up with her lawyer. She drank deeply from a glass of wine to calm her nerves and think about what to do.
Descriptions of routine actions are rarely necessary to help the reader understand the character’s world. These details should be included only to draw the reader’s attention to some other idea or event. Readers won’t worry that a character is hungry—just like they don’t worry about whether or not a character has gone to the bathroom if they don’t hear about it.