Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration

Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements.

Sufficiently realistic characters are part of fiction’s great juggling act—its need to appear plausible enough for readers to suspend their disbelief and engage with the story and its emotional truths. When writers develop their characters, they provide them with relationships (friends, family, lovers, etc), careers, backstories, hobbies, and so forth to achieve this verisimilitude. Of these items, I find how writers use hobbies in their stories fascinating because hobbies can serve many purposes besides filling out a character’s biography sheet. For example, hobbies[*] (to paraphrase what I’ve said elsewhere) often serve as a shorthand form of characterization because they can reveal aspects of the character’s personality through their interests. Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements. In this first of two parts discussing the role of hobbies is fiction, I’ll take a look at the clever ways in which writers use hobbies to develop characters and explore theme. Part II will look at the roles hobbies have in establishing the setting and forwarding plot.

Rounding out Characters

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration. Text by Rita E. Gould
We may not know how Sylvia Keene plays tennis, but we know she looks good doing it.

As I’ve implied, the primary role hobbies play in fiction involves characterization. The degree to which they inform the text about the character, however, varies. Providing biographical details is an excellent way to flesh out relatively minor characters. Sylvia Keene, a young woman discussed in Agatha Christie’s short story “The Herb of Death”, played tennis. This detail is mentioned as part of a brief “verbal portrait” provided by characters (Arthur and Dolly Bantry) who are discussing the circumstances of her death. Arthur observes she played tennis gracefully, which (along with youth and good looks) was part of her charm. In this regard, tennis reveals Sylvia’s characteristic grace but tells us little else about her. Similarly, a hobby might confirm or provide additional evidence of a character’s known interests. Librarian Polly Duncan, love interest to James Qwilleran (the main human character) from The Cat Who series, is an avid reader, a detail that merely confirms the bookishness her career choice suggested.

Characterization and Themes

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration. Text by Rita E. Gould
This angler ensures they don’t disturb the fish by leaving the area.

However, hobbies frequently provide readers with greater insights into the character’s personality and their behavior. Some hobbies tend to be associated with certain types of behavior or personality types. Angling, for example, is associated with quietness because it’s alleged that fish avoid noisy spots. Hobby stereotypes also exist: stamp collectors traditionally are thought of as reclusive and nerdy. Since these expectations exist, writers can use them to signal the character has certain traits or tendencies.[†] In The Lovely Bones,[‡] author Alice Sebold initially presents Jack Salmon as a father dealing his daughter Susie’s disappearance/murder. When Sebold introduces his hobby, readers gain insights into Jack’s personality and the family’s dynamics as she explore the novel’s themes.


A few weeks after Susie’s death, Jack enters his den to clean it up as part of an effort “to move forward” (45). As Susie (the narrator) explains, Jack’s den is where he either reads or builds miniature ships in bottle after work, with Susie often acting as his assistant. Sebold’s choice of hobby hints at traits Jack possesses. Since building these bottles requires painstaking effort, we’d expect anyone who attempting this hobby to be patient and meticulous. Susie confirms this impression by noting he “he counted numbers—due diligence” for an insurance company (45). Based on this description of Jack (reading, ship building, number crunching), readers might expect him to be typically quiet and mild mannered.

Family Ties

Susie also informs readers that Jack learned how to build these ship from his father, but she was the only other person in his own household who shares his love of these ships. Jack makes several failed attempts to entice his other children into building ships with him, demonstrating how important sharing this hobby is to him. Jack’s success with Susie also lets Sebold show readers that Susie shares some of her father’s qualities. As an amateur photographer who dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer, she possesses that same careful patience—whether it’s holding the bottle while waiting for the ship sails to rise or catching the right moment to snap a photo. Obviously, this activity represents a bonding experience, one which likely held greater significance for Jack given that no one else wanted to spend time working on these boats with him. In some ways, losing Susie means Jack loses someone who understands this side of him.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part I: Characterization and Theme Exploration Text. by Rita E. Gould
Jack Salmon’s hobby lets him connect with oldest daughter, Susie.

Exploring Theme

Jack’s mission to clear away his treasured ships—now painful reminders of Susie—takes a violent turn as he begins throwing and crashing them against the walls. The symbolism here is evident: the bottles are as shattered as Jack’s world. Sebold, of course, could have chosen to have Jack break anything to demonstrate his emotional turbulence. Destroying his treasured ships, items so closely associated with his murdered daughter, is a more poignant choice: nothing else but his tremendous grief could have prompted Jack to ruin them—or arguably provoked such violence from him. As loss and grief are among the novel’s central themes, Sebold’s inclusion of this scene is brilliant because it lets us see how Jack’s emotional landscape altered in response to Susie’s murder. His reaction to her loss, his grieving, involves fury that she was taken suddenly and violently. It also prepares readers for a future occasion when Jack’s grief and anger erupt again, this time with greater ramifications.

Having shown Jack’s emotional state and prepared readers for other instances what otherwise would have been out-of-character behavior, Sebold could have abandoned further mentions of ships, letting them remain casualties of Jack’s grief. Instead, she revisits Jack’s hobby one last time to beautifully illustrate Jack’s progression through the stages of mourning. Years later, Jack learns his other daughter is expecting a child and dreams of teaching another child to share his love of these ships, even as he knows that doing so will always remind him of his lost child. While Jack will never stop missing Susie, he has accepted her death and is now truly moving forward as best he can. In this moment, we see all the novel’s themes—loss, grief, and love and acceptance—tangled in Jack’s humble hopes for the future.

Sebold’s thoughtful use of Jack’s hobby shows some (though not all) of the more complex ways a hobby can influence a story through characterization: it suggests his personality (supported by career choices and other pastimes), show us how his hobby connects him or distances from family, reveals how grief changes him, and how acceptance reconnects him to himself. In part II of “Fiction and the Versatile Hobby”, I’ll examine the roles, both small and great, hobbies play when we consider story settings and plot.

Next week, Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot


[*] Countless activities can be considered hobbies, ranging from sports to collecting. There are crossovers between hobbies and professions (an amateur painter versus the professional), with some people occasionally even supplementing their primary income with earnings from such pursuits and others managing to translate a hobby into a career (the home cook turned professional). However fine these distinctions may be, generally the hobby is the one that earns less, is conducted only in one’s spare time, and would not be considered as an occupation by its practitioner.

[†] Or to contradict stereotypes!

[‡] Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2009.

Writing Holmes: How Conan Doyle Harnessed Hobbies for Sleuthing

“And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of ability with which he prefaced it was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby.”

Sherlock Holmes, from “The ‘Gloria Scott’” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[*]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes looms large in detective fiction. Although he is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin,[†] Conan Doyle wrote far more extensively about his characters. As a result, Holmes’s personality is developed to a greater degree. He has quirks—Holmes, often described as an eccentric, once shot “a patriotic V. R.” in his sitting room wall (“The Mustgrave Ritual”)[‡]—as well as vices (cocaine use) and hobbies. Of these, I find how authors of fiction use hobbies in their stories particularly interesting because hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself. In this first essay of a series that explores how writers use hobbies in fiction, I will discuss how Conan Doyle judiciously gave Holmes certain hobbies to create his great detective.

“The Merest Hobby”

Sherlock Holmes's sitting room. Photo by R. Gould
Sherlock Holmes’s sitting room (as reproduced by The Sherlock Holmes’s Museum) featuring “the patriotic V.R.”. Photo taken by R. Gould.

Conan Doyle uses hobbies to accomplish much in the Holmes stories. For example, we learn that Holmes is talented violinist in A Study in Scarlet. Mentioned alongside his other pursuits, this hobby demonstrates the diversity of Holmes’s interests. Arguably, the violin also gives him an emotional outlet: Watson speculates that the strange violin solos may reflect Holmes’s moods. While such descriptions suggest Holmes’s complexity, there are three instances in which Conan Doyle actually uses the word hobby[§] that illustrate more about Holmes’s character and his profession.

In his first case (“The “Gloria Scott’”), Holmes describes his “habits of observation and inference” as “the merest hobby”. This opinion alters once Mr. Trevor, staggered by how much Holmes could infer about a stranger by mere observation, informs him “that all the detectives in fact and fiction would be children in your hand. That’s your line of life, sir.…” Devoted readers of Holmes know from The Sign of Four, published prior to this story, that Holmes considers observation and deduction to be “two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective”. Rather than informing the reader about detecting, Conan Doyle inserts this epiphany to show both Holmes’s backstory (How did Holmes become a detective?) and his evolution. The younger Holmes, like so many others, once was clueless about his future after he finished college. But as Holmes matures, so does his hobby. “The merest hobby” proves to be the basis of Holmes’s career in disguise.

The Dilettante’s Hobby

But the idea that observation and deduction could be a “mere hobby” is an important consideration that Conan Doyle explores in a second instance where the word hobby appears. “The Greek Interpreter” introduces Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s elder brother, who apparently surpasses his younger sibling in these qualities. However, as Sherlock drily observes, “If the art of the detective began and ended with reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”. Since Mycroft Holmes is a lazy man, both lacking the interest in confirming his theories and incapable of obtaining proof to support them, Sherlock dismisses his brother’s efforts as “the merest hobby of a dilettante”.

But Mycroft’s passivity allows him to act as Sherlock’s foil (i.e., the hobbyist versus the careerist) in another manner, as his aversion to exercise is contrasted to Sherlock’s energy. Clearly, Conan Doyle considered the physical abilities[**] a sleuth might need, keeping in mind the dangers connected to catching criminals. Hence, he provided Holmes with suitable hobbies that would make him fit to be a detective.[††] In Sherlock’s college days, his athletic interests were boxing and fencing (“The ‘Gloria Scott’”); Watson later describes Sherlock as “an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman” (A Study in Scarlet). As is seen with Holmes’s other “mere” hobby, these activities transform from sporting pastimes into useful tools for self-protection and/or subduing dangerous persons. From these examples, we can see that Conan Doyle uses this notion of hobby to delineate the difference between amateurs and professionals by insisting that a true detective needs to be an active investigator, seeking proof of his deductions and capable of handling whatever dangers and difficulties that arise during an investigation.

The Wearisome Hobby

Sherlock Holmes seeking clues.

The importance of seeking proof, however, naturally leads us back to the third quality of the “ideal detective”: knowledge. Holmes mentions to Watson that he (Holmes) has written monographs on tracing footprints and preserving them in plaster of Paris, distinguishing the various types of tobacco,[‡‡] and how different trades affect appearance of the human hand, a conversation he concludes by noting “But I weary you with my hobby.” To understand what Conan Doyle is doing here, we must unpack this scene further. Holmes’s monographs on “technical subjects” result from seeking this knowledge (The Sign of Four). As detailed in “The Mustgrave Ritual”, Holmes spent all his free time studying “all the branches of science that might make [him] more efficient” as a detective once he embarked on his career. And this knowledge (referring specifically to Holmes’s monographs and how they are useful for solving crimes and presenting evidence in court) is of “interest to the scientific detective”—meaning that Conan Doyle views the ideal detective as the scientific one (The Sign of Four).

This discussion of Holmes’s hobby, the writing of academic treatises on said “technical subjects”—what we’d know call forensic sciences—is important because it firmly establishes that Holmes’s detective work is based in a scientific approach. Although Holmes is not an academic, his work is of sufficient merit to be published for scientific community and this confers on him authority.[§§]. And he needs to claim this authority: Although his scientific studies are extensive, they are not attached to a specific degree program (A Study in Scarlet) since forensic sciences were not yet a formalized field of study. Similarly, Holmes is not a government detective, like Lestrade or Villard (the French detective who consulted Holmes and intends to translate his monographs; The Sign of Four). To justify their regard and validate Holmes’s presence at the crime scenes, it’s important to show that he has certain qualifications (observation, deduction and knowledge) that these regular detectives lack. To summarize, Holmes’s academic hobby neatly serves as his detecting credentials.

Conan Doyle’s compelling use of character hobbies serves multiple purposes in the Holmes tales. Beyond the role of providing character description, they define both Holmes and his approach to detective work: methodological observation, analysis and confirmation backed by scientific knowledge. But Holmes’s is not merely an academic or even armchair detective—he also possesses the necessary abilities to gain information, apprehend felons, and defend himself. He essentially is the fictional CSI of the Victorian era. And in this case, hobbies make the Holmes.


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[*] For my quotes, I indicate the stories in which they appear because page numbers vary among the numerous anthologies, and it’s impractical to presume we’re all looking at the same book. For the record, the anthology I referred to was: Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

[†] It’s well established that Conan Doyle loosely based Holmes and Watson on Poe’s Dupin and companion/roommate, respectively. For further reading, the reference lists of Holmes’s Wikipedia page is suggested—Wikipedia articles themselves are not good primary sources!

[‡] Yep, Holmes is that roommate. Also, this episode suggests that Holmes is a decent marksman.

[§] The three instances of the word hobby are discussed in their order of importance to the stories, not in order of story publication. Similarly, discussion of the actual hobbies tends to follow least to most important hobbies.

[**] This is not one of three qualities a detective must possess so much as a useful fourth.

[††] While Holmes’s marksmanship and acting ability are invaluable to his detective work, it’s difficult to term either as a hobby. We do know that Holmes started disguising himself as he grew famous, which—coupled with Holmes antisocial tendencies—signals that he adopted acting for his profession (The Sign of Four). For marksmanship, it’s unclear whether it was a sporting pastime prior to his career or again something he learned for his profession.

[‡‡] This monograph is also mentioned in A Study in Scarlet.

[§§] You could literally state that he doesn’t just know about tobacco ash, he wrote the book on it. Well, the monograph at any rate.