Personality Traits: Bad Habits/Vices

The next section of Marc McCutcheon’s book  Building Believable Characters I’d like to discuss is called BAD HABITS/VICES. It’s basically a three-page list of bad habits and vices. While some of them are silly (cracks knuckles or farts in public), others would be useful for building a well-rounded yet flawed character. I’d like to pick out some of these bad habits and offer suggestions on how to use them in novel-writing.

The first one on the list is OVERSLEEPS. At first, I thought it was funny/not serious, but then I thought of a great application. My hero oversleeps every day. The alarm goes off, he slaps the snooze button a few too many times, and suddenly he’s late for work. Most bosses would not tolerate lateness, especially on a daily basis, but as I writer and creative person, I can do better than that. Maybe the boss is okay with a flex schedule, or the work involved doesn’t revolve around a fixed schedule, so it doesn’t matter what time the hero shows up for work, as long as he puts in his eight hours. And for the sake of storytelling, my hero is a hard, conscientious worker. He just not very punctual. Now I’ll make it his flaw, that inner something that must be overcome before he can achieve The Goal. Suppose his goal has a time limit? Maybe not as dramatic as a ticking bomb that will blow up his entire city, including his puppy, his girlfriend, and his aging mama, but something that has high enough stakes that he’s got to be on time for it–and that deadline is 5:30 am. I’m gong to stop there because I’m sure you’ve already finished the story, or you’re miffed at me because I changed something midstream that you were already thinking about. Play with this bad habit and see if it can work for your hero.
I’m skipping down the list to “Shaves and leaves whiskers in the sink.” Gross! Definitely a bad habit, but not something that would work as an inner flaw. However, this could generate some necessary tension in a relationship. I’m thinking the guy who leaves whiskers in the sink will also leave his socks on the floor, and when he makes himself a sandwich the mayo knife will be left on the counter, and his raincoat will be a permanent fixture on the banister by the front door. This guy’s bad habits will make some woman’s life misery–and maybe that’s HER flaw that she must overcome: deal with this guy or move on, because all women know, deep down, that we can’t change our man no matter how hard we try. (Insert joke here). Can you think of another way to use this bad habit in your story?
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Further down the list, I’m intrigued by LAUGHS TOO LOUD WHEN NERVOUS, and it’s cousin LAUGHS TOO MUCH WHEN NERVOUS. This is a glorious personality flaw to play with! We’ve all seen this on TV and in real life: female hero is in the emergency room waiting for news of a loved one who was in a horrific fill-in-the-blank, the nurse arrives to give the dire news, and the hero’s giggling at every word the nurse says. I know someone like this in real life. Her daughter was having a broken arm reset, and my friend was giggling. Not a “it’s funny” giggle, but a nervous chitter that she couldn’t help. She’s admitted that it’s thoroughly embarrassing, and she wishes she could stop, but she can’t. It’s her body’s way of dealing with the stress. Can you think of other inappropriate situations where this nervous laugh will create tension or hostility? (Other versions of this are whistles when nervous, hums when nervous, sings when nervous, etc.)
The next one on the list that caught my attention is TAILGATES (goes with IGNORES YEILD SIGNS and SCREAMS AT OTHER DRIVERS). While tailgating is a dangerous activity that can earn you a hefty fine if a police officer spots you doing it, how could this be used in a story? I’m thinking of a Type A hero who prides himself on never being late, who demands that everyone else on the road do the exact speed limit (“You’re going five under the limit, you jackwad! Find your gas pedal!”), and who’s now got ten minutes to make it to fill-in-the-blank and there’s a traffic snarl up ahead. While this will create tension for both the hero and every other driver on the road, can you think of ways to make this a much bigger issue? Can this bad habit of tailgating and shouting at other drivers become an inciting incident, or even a major plot point? Think about it for a minute. I’ll wait.
There are a ton of bad habits/vices on this list, and I want to talk about more of them, so I’ll continue this discussion in my next post. Did anything I say in this one get your creative juices flowing? Care to share what you thought of? That’s what the comments section is for. Please avail yourselves of it. Is that grammatically correct?

2 thoughts on “Personality Traits: Bad Habits/Vices

  1. This is great. So often there’s this implied push for all characters to have some sort of really significant, major personality or behavioral flaw. (See my previous note about action heroes and alcohol abuse…) That’s not always realistic. Some people really are great people all around, but aren’t ‘golden’ – they’ve got odd little quirks that might annoy some people while being harmless to others. We all do. A protagonist doesn’t have to have some enormous flaw to be realistic and balanced. A couple of interesting quirks can be all it takes to keep realism in check and provide minor relational friction.

    • Great points, Aggeloi. They can even be humorous: picks nose in public; scratches inappropriately in public; checks tissue after blowing nose. They can also be not-so-humorous: talks too loud all the time; annoying laugh; punches people playfully but a little too hard. It doesn’t take that much extra work to add these little things in.

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