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3 Tips For Writing a Bookish Character

3 Tips for Writing a Bookish Character

I’m afraid I completely forgot to submit to last week’s WIP Wednesday (we’re deep in puppy preparations over here, people. My seven year old golden retriever Riggs should be getting a new baby brother by the end of the week… If you’re wondering what that noise is, it’s probably me, excitedly and incessantly squealing.) So, I thought I would double-up this week and talk about both themes: Characters Who Read, and Characters Who Write.

I’m definitely guilty of making my characters as bookish as possible. One of my characters is a professional writer (travel books that help explain his encyclopedic knowledge of the WIP’s fantasy world), but I think almost all of my main characters are shown, at some point, with either a book or a pen in their hands. Showing your characters reading or writing can be difficult to fit into your story — after all, a story is about plot and forward momentum, and if your character is taking a break to lounge on the couch with a novel, then they’re not exactly running around saving the world, are they?

There are ways to put across that your character is delightfully bookish, though, without having to hit pause on your story:

1. Show That They Own Books, At the Very Least

One technique I’ve found effective is to slide into the story hints at the characters’ reading habits. For instance, while my main character is snooping around another character’s bedroom, he notices a pile of books:

He gravitated towards the table cluttered with papers. Many of these were unfurled maps and half-finished correspondence. There were books, too, a guidebook and a mystery novel, and a red leather-bound volume with thick waxy pages that stood out from the rest.

I’ve also had him root through another character’s bag (he … doesn’t have many boundaries when it comes to personal belongings, I’m realizing as I type this…) and a quick reference there tells us this character also keeps books on them at all times:

The inside of Ol’s bag was far deeper and wider than it looked from the outside, expanded by some force of nature, or Fog, or Gallifreyan technology at least. Charley shoved aside books and sweaters and cans of green beans. He dug through a layer of boxer shorts; pushed past what must’ve been a dozen sheathed knives […]

If it doesn’t serve your story, you don’t have to show a character sitting down to read. Showing that they have books in their living space, in their bags, having them hold a book as they walk into a scene, or snap a book closed as another character comes in to talk can all demonstrate to the reader your character’s bookishness without slowing things down.

2. Have Characters Do Research — Make Hermione Proud!

But, sometimes you do want to show your character cracking open a book. Now, there’re lots of ways to incorporate a character’s reading into the plot. You could have themes from their reading material mirror their real life predicaments. You could have a scene where a passage from a book they’re trying to focus on keeps reminding them of something else they’re dealing with. Or, you could have the characters crack open a book to research whatever their nagging concern might be! To the library we go!

I frequently use characters researching problems, perusing libraries, or showing each other passages of books to convey important information to both the character and the reader. (I also just really love coming up with fictional book titles, okay??)

 “Here.” Ol spun Theory and Theology around and pushed it across the table towards Charley. He tapped a passage halfway down the page. “Read that.”
Charley sucked butter off his thumb. “What is it?”
“The reason you’re in danger.”
Well, that hardly inspired enthusiasm. Charley set down his fork and leaned over the book to read.

3. Maybe It’s Not What They Read, But How They’re Reading It…

Sometimes I’ll slap a book into a character’s hands to a) give them something to do during a dialogue-heavy scene and b) to use as a conduit for characterization and detail. Here’s a scene where my character Ol doesn’t want to be seen by a group of new arrivals (as he’s caused the fire they’ve just been investigating):

Charley turned to look just as a large group of Guides burst into the lobby. They spoke in carrying voices, tracking mud across the floor and shaking out their coats, from which dirt and ash fluttered.
He recognized a few of them: they had been at the scene of the fire that morning. Charley whipped around to find Ol’s attention still fixed on his book, but his eyes were no longer moving across the page and his fingers on the cover were clamped a little too tight.

The way Ol treats his book informs the tension of the moment.

I use these same techniques to show my characters writing. Pages of scribbled notes heaped on a table; a character trying to both write something down and distractedly help another character with their problem; someone being described as having ink on their sleeves or a pen sticking out of a pocket. Squeeze every ounce of characterization you can out of every moment, people!

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Are your characters voracious bookworms chewing through novels as your story progresses? Or are they mini-Alexander Hamiltons, writing like they’re running out of time? Leave a comment below, or make a blog post about and participate in WIP Wednesday, my weekly link-up for writers!! 

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