Coffee and Characters

“How do you take your coffee?” 4236567243_1fd99e8351_z

If everyone who saw this article responded in the comments, we’d be dazzled by the variety of responses. Everybody has their own little quirks when it comes to coffee or any other frequently consumed food or drink. Some prefer their coffee black, some like cream or milk, and some like to stir in a spoonful of Hamburger Helper (10 internet points if you get the reference).The people closest to you probably know your preferences and vice versa. But do you know how your character takes his or her coffee?

If you don’t, it’s time to take your protagonist and any other central characters to a fictional café. Visualize what they do and pay attention to what, if anything, they put in their coffee, if they even drink it in the first place. Look for other little habits. For example, some people prefer to pour their milk or cream into the coffee and others prefer to pour their dairy into the cup before the coffee goes in. And some prefer to criticize others about the order in which they add these things. You can also do this exercise with other things. Perhaps take your characters out to a fictional bar and see who orders what.

You might be thinking at this point that these quirks don’t amount to much, but having little preferences like these is part of being human. When you show your characters having these particular quirks and you implement them consistently without distracting from the story, readers will notice in a good way. (Warning: This technique is easy to overdo. If you’re uncertain about your work or new to writing, show someone else and see if it sticks out to them. It shouldn’t.)

Okay, I’m going to be a nerd here and pull in a Harry Potter reference. Did you know Harry Potter’s favorite dessert is treacle tart? I don’t believe it’s ever explicitly mentioned in the series (though I could be wrong; I haven’t done an extensive search). It doesn’t need to be mentioned because the reader sees Harry eating treacle tart frequently and with a great deal of joy. It’s the first thing he reaches for in every feast scene when dessert comes. The reader sees Harry loading his plate with treacle tart, taking treacle tart someone passes him, speaking to others through a mouthful of treacle tart. Rowling never needs to say treacle tart is Harry’s favorite because she shows it being his favorite. Think about the things your characters do habitually throughout your story. Look for frequent settings and activities in which you can show the characters’ habits.

Now, don’t go out of your way to describe things that will distract from the story. Instead, aim for subtlety in showing both habits and deviations from the norm. For a change example, in a tense moment you could have someone put more sugar than they normally like into their coffee. Or forget to put the sugar in. Thus, you could lead to a moment of humorous shock as the character, already stressed, takes a sip of that coffee only to find it was not the expected taste. Maybe they spit the coffee in somebody’s face. If you’re not quite sure how to do this, have a look at the great hall scenes in the Harry Potter series, particularly feasts. You’ll find the mentions of treacle tart never take away from the scene but simply flesh out what’s already there.

As a writing exercise (not a scene for your story), spend a little time with your characters in a mundane, habitual situation. Even if you don’t end up using all the information you come up with for your story—and you probably won’t—you’ll get to know them a little better and see how they shine in ordinary situations so they can shine more brightly in those magical moments that make it into your manuscript.

P.S. Internet points are entirely hypothetical. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have value… in your heart.
P.P.S. Just kidding, they’re completely worthless.
P.P.P.S. I know it wasn’t coffee that got the ‘Helper.

Image Credit: Akaitori, Flickr Creative Commons

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