I was doing some mundane laundry – where I often get some great ideas – and it occurred to me that the doing of housework is a great way to reveal character. Not the singing and dancing while mopping Disney style – which is quite clearly the behaviour of a homicidal maniac. No? Well, ok then, moving on. But what does menial work reveal – and what does it have to do with Chekhov?
Chekhov (the writer, not from Star Trek, that’s another story!) famously said “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Is it wrong that I think we could apply this to housework and other menial tasks?
Housework is such a dull activity, and you need to keep doing it over and over, with the knowledge that no one will notice until you stop doing it. But we all do things in different ways – even to hanging out laundry. Different cultures also have their own methods, and indeed acceptance of levels of hygiene. Use of cleaning chemicals, tools, water conservation – all of these can vary quite significantly across cultures and people. It is also likely to vary significantly as time goes on, or we go into space. (Do they vacuum in space?) It is also a subtle way to mix up gender norms by mixing up tasks and stereotyped behaviours.
A character is doing some cleaning up. Don’t leave it at that or leave it out altogether as the cleaning fairies do it between scenes. Do they think about the past? Their Mother? Are they fastidious, cleaning all around the nooks and crannies with a brush and using harsh germicidal chemicals? Why are they so strict about it?
Or are they more meh? Does yesterday’s washing up sit in the sink, and dirty clothes pile in the cupboard? Is this a temporary aberration from being tired, stressed, or unhappy, or is the cleaner late? Do they ignore all of this as not important while they focus on work?
What would happen if they are plunged into a more bohemian household, or a survival situation? Relax or breakdown? An example of this is Harry feeling at home in the bohemian chaos of the Weasley home. The family love is something he has missed in the sterile clean environment of the Dursleys. But can you imagine Petunia’s reaction if she visited the Weasley home?
Can the characters change enough to survive? Emergencies, an apocalypse, a sudden quest into the Badlands, or colonising a different planet all require a flexible mindset and luck. Sometime luck is of your own making – being able to cook, clean and start a fire are all good survival tools. So too is the ability to manipulate others to do it for you. Who will survive? It’s not always the one you think it should be.
In a post apocalypse novel, will they stay static in their mindset and face dying, or grow into the new problems and become a hero? In the novel “Flare” by Theresa Shaver, one character starts to grow into the new behaviours needed in an apocalypse but falls back into old habits of taking the easy way out – using her looks to hitch a ride. Everyone in – and reading – the novel knows that it will not end well.
What about the hero or the villain? Is the antique record collection organised alphabetically? Does the villain have all their books organised by colour and not by author? What little warning signs can you put in to foreshadow what they are really like? What is an everyday item they carry? What is in their bug out bag? Or what can’t they leave behind when they leave Earth? Heinlein used a beloved Scout uniform in “Farmer in the Sky”. Too sentimental to leave behind, the character nevertheless destroyed it when his friends were in danger. Character growth on a subtle level.
The well organised record collection hero may be an extremely pedantic scientist, and this can be a source of friction and conflict that can work well if the heroine is a bohemian artist. How flexible are they to change – and can this be seen in the housework? You can imagine the neat person’s reaction to the first signs of mess. Something drastic will have to happen for them to get together. Or does he pick up a cloth and help clean up dog sick without comment? (Hint: he’s a keeper!)
Villains can be more subtle. Outwardly charming, there is something off kilter. How do they react when a waiter spills coffee on them? A planet refuses to cooperate with their galactic policies? The explosion of anger, or coldness can be an early warning sign – not all is as it appears. Peter O’Donnell in his Modesty Blaise series had some fantastic villains with some truly vile ‘tells’ as to how bad they could become.
So while putting housework and mundane activities in writing seems dull, little snippets can enchant the reader. They’ve been there, done that – they understand. Beguile them – foreshadow and let them anticipate how it will play out.
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