Busy-ness is generally considered unimportant when it comes to plotting. We don’t usually make space for it, because it isn’t central to the plot. Unless we are writing a romance and need a quite moment for the two characters to interact, we try to keep the pace going.
Note, I spelt it with a “y” because “business” sounds so much more important, professional, and productive. We write about the business of our characters all the time–the business of running kingdoms, vanquishing evil, and succeeding at work and relationships.
But we don’t write about busy-ness much–the humdrum of everyday life, of filling out paperwork and whiling away time by a hundred mundane but necessary tasks.
Yet I think busy-ness is a good time to show who are characters truly are. How do they handle the delay of just living life? Do they settle back into routine, almost forgetting that they have something more important to do? Do they lose themselves in running errands and getting groceries? Or do they rage at it, quietly but relentlessly trying to get out of the “hampster wheel” of life, trying to prove that their lives are different, more important, more full of business than everyone else?
A delay can tells us a great deal about how a character will handle success or failure, and can hint at the climax and resolution, either way. One of the things I so greatly enjoyed about “The Lord of the Rings” (the books, in this case) was how the daily events of life were included in the novel. Frodo and company run away from the Ringwraiths and then embrace the humdrum necessities of life–a bath, tea, and relaxing–and the way in which they responded to these simple comforts tells us a great deal about hobbits in general and about these particular hobbits in a personal, relatable way.
And then, we have the delay at Rivendell, which again sheds light on Frodo and Sam, in particular. How they handle this sudden change from urgency to busy-ness is a marvelous means of showing their characters, as they deal with small talk with dwarves, the songs of elves, and where they’re seated (Sam wanted to serve Frodo, but had to sit as a guest of honor with Merry and Pippin). Even the juggling of their seat cushions is handled with particular characteristics.
These little scenes show what characters think of themselves and of their situation, and they demonstrate who the characters are when things are going well (or well enough, as busy-ness rarely involves danger or any sort of threat, save from boredom). These scenes are essential in establishing why we should care about the character. Why are they worth saving or rooting for? Why do we want their happiness? It’s not in the moment of strife and fighting, when the character is struggling against the odds that readers decide “in their favor.” It’s the slow, humdrum moments that show us, yes, this person is worth befriending.
This is why, when we try to get to know someone, we go out on a date instead of taking them out for a martial arts duel, hunting, or rock climbing (though these might be fun, later activities for some people). Putting someone in a life-or-death situation can only tell us so much about them, and truly might tell us more about their reflexes then their heart. We really get to know a person through the little things: how they handle friction, delays, and the general busy-ness of life.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo used according to Creative Commons