Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce the English-speaking world to a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text by Rita E. Gould
Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843.

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce to the English-speaking world a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.[*] Prior to Humboldt’s scientific exploration of South America, western society largely assumed nature behaved much like a complex machine that was, for the most part, stable and unchanging. Many believed that nature existed for humanity’s use, and some even argued, as French naturalist George Louis de LeClerc (Comte de Buffon) did, that wilderness was a wasteland that required civilizing. No one, as Wulf emphasizes, concerned themselves with the possibility that nature could be damaged or destroyed. However, Humboldt’s observations in South America (then a colony of the Spanish Crown) led him to a very different conclusion.[†]

The “Web of Life”

While in South America, Humboldt intended to collect plant and animal specimens and record empiric data (eg, air and water temperature) as most naturalists did. However, the Prussian-born polymath had an additional aspiration: he wanted to see how natural forces worked in concert. Seeking a “big picture” view of nature, Humboldt’s approach was interdisciplinary and incorporated aspects of art, philosophy, poetry, history and politics. Humboldt’s choice to be inclusive and to compare across disciplines was unique, given that most scientific studies tended towards specialization and excluded the arts. His study of nature was not merely intellectual but also embraced emotional responses to the natural world.

With this “global view”, Humboldt’s radically revised the way in which nature was perceived. Far from the faithful machine depicted by René Descartes and others, Humboldt realized that nature was a delicately balanced “web of life”, one that human could tear asunder. While at Lake Valencia, Humboldt discovered that clear cutting a forest for cash crops yielded barren fields, a dried up river, and soil erosion. The first to recognize forests’ ecological role (ie, cooling effect, retention of water and soil), Humboldt would warn against irresponsible farming and mining practices. Thus, he became a forerunner of the environmental movement.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photo credit: Jeremy S. Henderson.
Nature writer, preservationist, and Sierra Club founder John Muir was among those whom Humboldt inspired. As an activist, Muir campaigned to designate several areas (eg, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon) as national parks. (Photo of sequoias in Muir Woods Monument. Credit: Jeremy S. Henderson.)

Widespread Influence

In writing about Humboldt, Wulf seeks to illuminate the reach of his influence from his time to ours. She describes contemporary scientists whose careers were supported, launched, or even inspired by Humboldt, among them Charles Darwin. Humboldt’s prominence in the scientific community (she refers to him as its “nexus”) existed alongside his ardent support for the free exchange of ideas and democracy.[‡]  In South America, he witnessed the horrors of slavery and the abuses visited on the indigenous people whose ancient cultures were destroyed. His writings condemn slavery and challenge the supposed savagery of indigenous peoples. Símon Bolívar met Humboldt in Paris and found in Humboldt someone who admired his homeland and shared his disgust with Spanish colonial rule; their conversations would lead Bolívar to consider the possibility of revolution. Humboldt’s vision of nature and popular publications resonated with writers such as English Romantic poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wadsworth; poets Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman; American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and nature writers such as John Muir. Wulf also devotes several chapters to disciples of Humboldt who carried on his legacy.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text and photo by Rita E. Gould
Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, was heavily influenced by Humboldt’s writings, in particular his book Visions of Nature. (Walden Pond. Credit: Rita E. Gould.)

Humboldt’s Legacy

Wulf’s admiration for Humboldt is both deserved and contagious. Discovering the “hidden” history behind concepts I studied in my undergrad science courses was exciting:[§] I had no idea that adventurous undertakings such as mountain climbing led to vegetation and climate zones, let alone who was responsible for this new way of categorizing plants. And as someone with a degree in literature and one in with environmental studies, reading about Humboldt was fascinating as I saw names from two very disciplines intermingle, whether they influenced him (eg, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Immanuel Kant) or he inspired them (eg, Darwin, Thoreau, Muir). It truly is amazing to see how interdisciplinary knowledge unites to change the world. And it’s perhaps for this reason that Wulf hopes to restore Humboldt to his former prominence. As we now face human-precipitated climatic changes he once warned against, the interdisciplinary approaches he used will likely be needed. According to Wulf, Humboldt may well be the inspirational figure to guide us through these difficult times.


[*] Wulf posits that Humboldt’s ideas potentially were so self-evident that his contributions was forgotten but considers the anti-Germany sentiment following the outbreak of World War I as a more likely cause.

[†] An earthquake that occurred not long after Humboldt’s arrival left him shaken as it forever dispelled the notion that nature was static.

[‡] Some considered his acceptance of a pension from the Prussian monarchy hypocritical, while Humboldt looked at it more pragmatically: he could not pursue his academic studies without financial support. He did attempt to use his position to positively influence the monarchy and would successfully ensure that all slave who entered Prussia would be freed immediately. Humboldt’s commitment to democracy also meant he was bitterly disappointed when the unification of Germany led to another monarchy in place of the federation he favored.

[§] And nowhere near as awkward as the time I realized my knowledge of the scientific method did not extend to its lengthy history.

The Writing Reboot

In which I finally give the boot to a several projects on the roster and move onto better writing prospects.

After a dismal and unproductive December, picking up where I left off my writing (and, to a lesser extent, reading)[*] has been challenging, especially where it concerns this blog. Some of the seasonal posts I planned, sadly, will remain postponed until a more appropriate moment. New post ideas for the new year need to be generated (of course), and there’s the small matter of what to do with those potential posts I thought would pan out but have produced, well, nothing. Whether they were in progress or in the notetaking stage, I’m finally admitting that I won’t continue writing on those topics.

There’s something terribly sad about shelving a project that once seemed so full of promise. Yet I feel it’s one of those painful and necessary parts of writing, much akin to revisions and editing. A particular sentence may stun with its style or gorgeous imagery, but it deserves deletion if it doesn’t flow with the paragraph it belong to. Similarly, a scene that doesn’t serve the story in terms of character insight, exposition, or plot development should be cut. And the same decisions must be made for writing projects that aren’t panning out. For example, I planned to write about my travels through the Seattle area in conjunction with a book set in that locale. As I began writing, though, I discovered that the tone of the two experiences didn’t mesh well and my interest waned.[†] And if I’m not excited what I’m attempting to write, I doubt someone else will find joy there, either.

Project officially scrapped.

So, I’m back to revising my list to make sure I’m ready for a writerly 2018. While it might be difficult to discard some of my ideas (especially the ones I sunk some time into developing), I’ve gained a better understanding of what interests me as a writer.[‡] With this awareness, I can better focus my writing time on more intriguing topics. Such as this great biography about a scientist who had a significant impact on how we understand nature, a topic which I’m looking forward to discussing at length in an upcoming post.

Have you decided to shelve a writing project? What made you decide it wasn’t worth pursuing further?

[*]Bookmarks and reading lists (such as Goodreads) excel at keeping one’s place.

[†] One sure sign that a project isn’t working out for me is that I keep electing to write about something, anything else every time I attempt to work on it.

[‡] And as someone whose deleted a post that I spent significant time writing and marketing, I’m far more pleased by decision to remove what doesn’t work than keep something that I feel is subpar.

Clean Sweep: Righting My Writing Space

When creative clutter turns catastrophe, it’s time to right your writing space.

Mistakes Were Made

Recently, I had a literal light bulb moment. The lamp on my desk, which had been flickering, made a popping noise and then everything—computer monitor included—went dark. A quick trip to the circuit breaker box, however, restored the power. My computer rebooted without problem and, happily, my documents were unharmed.[*] But as I wormed my way underneath my desk to unplug the offending lamp, I realized it was time I finally sorted out my writing space.

My writing desk lives in the bonus room of our house, an addition off our dining room that we use as office space. While it’s technically a shared space, I use this room the most, especially since my spouse decided its locale wasn’t quiet enough for conference calls when working from home. So, we spent a day (somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve) moving me into a larger desk so that I could have more space for my writing and other projects.[†] While we succeeded in rearranging and discarding old furniture and miscellany, I still needed to organize where my assorted belongings would reside on the desk. Plus, there were several boxes that needed to be sorted and stowed…somewhere. But, given the hour, I reluctantly agreed to get to it later.

Ah, later. Such a fatal word.

From Creative Clutter to Catastrophe

Of course, I didn’t return to the task during the holidays (so many social calls) or afterwards (too busy). On occasion, I filed items or slipped some odds and ends away. More often, though, I nudged items under the desk, shuffled piles around my desk, and absentmindedly stuffed items in the drawers when something was in the way. And I continued to write and manage my other projects as usual. While I’m inclined to indulge in chores when I write,[‡] the one place I leave untouched is my desk; I like to spread out the books I’m reading or using for research as well as my notes while I’m at the keyboard. I rarely clear off my desk completely but I tuck away items I don’t need once I finish a project. But more and more items lingered on my desk because they had nowhere else to go.

For some time, though, it was little more than a nuisance. Although I was irked by the unfinished job, I promised myself I’d get to it eventually—with that eventuality occurring in some distant month. My dissatisfaction grew when I found myself searching for important documents I stashed in some obscure locale. When I had to stop writing to hunt for a hefty tome that had been swallowed by a pile of paperwork (and I’m not sure what else), it was a sign that my shuffling piles around to make a spot for writing notes wasn’t working well. Having to wriggle past now dusty boxes to find an outlet finally forced me to admit that it was time for a clean sweep. The constant interruptions were officially more annoying than the clutter itself. So, off I went to organize, however reluctantly.

Righting My Writing Space

When it comes to writing, there’s nothing wrong with a little desktop chaos.[§] The question is whether the writing space works for the writer. On any given day, multiple obligations and needs pull us in different directions, often taking us away from our writing. We don’t need to get in our own way as well. In my case, too much clutter distracted me from writing. Even when I wasn’t writing, being unable to find items I needed turned my writing space into a source of irritation when it should be the place where I focus on the words. Reorganizing my desk was just another step toward creating a better writing environment. And while my desk may not be magazine ready (and the office still needs work), I already feel less crowded.


[*] Documents that automatically save for the win!

[†] Arts and crafts as well as household finances, plus whatever comes up.

[‡] As noted in my first post a year ago!

[§] I’m told a messy desk is a sign of creativity. I’ve been very creative, apparently.

Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women

The timing of Angela Saini’s recently published book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,[*] seems almost prescient following the publication of the Google memo. Once again, science has been invoked to demonstrate that inequalities between men and women exist because of biological difference instead of lingering prejudices about women’s capability. But, as Saini cautions us, such science isn’t without its biases[†] nor is there necessarily consensus on these findings. In Inferior, Saini seeks to provide insights into controversial studies and theories existing in several scientific disciplines that intimate or have claimed that huge biological gaps exist—ones reinforcing damaging stereotypes—and the new research challenging these findings, even when the facts don’t readily dispel such stereotypes.

Evolving Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Darwin assumed men drove evolution but newer studies focus on how evolutionary forces affected women, dispelling notions of female passivity, inferiority, and even chastity.

When they do, however, the results can be quite eye opening. Among the disciplines that Saini investigates, evolutionary biology has greatly altered its view of women, in no small part due to women scientists. Charles Darwin argued that the pressure only men experienced to obtain mates drove evolution, cementing male superiority to women in every way. Men became hunters, while women, passively engaged in childcare, evolved only because they inherited some of their father’s better qualities. For Darwin, men’s preeminence in all fields proved his point.[‡] Recent studies of increasingly rare modern hunter–gatherer groups, however, reveal cultures where men are caregivers and women are hunters, disputing the idea that such roles are predestined. Indeed, scrutinizing these populations (not to mention animal populations[§]) also contradicts the notion that females are universally monogamous.

Contentious Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Among the cases where “facts are greyer” than people find comfortable, testosterone appears to produce small behavioral sex differences.

However, some areas of study still are poorly understood and others hotly debated. Notably, the role of sex hormones (responsible for sexual development and reproduction) remains less clear. Once thought to be the agents that made men masculine (testosterone) and women feminine (estrogen and progesterone), it’s now understood that these hormones are produced by the gonads of both males and females, albeit in differing amounts. While this discovery dismissed the view that masculinity and femininity were opposites, lingering questions about how these hormones interact within our bodies and affect our minds remain. The theory that sex hormones create significant differences between the brains of male and female fetuses, predisposing them to certain roles, is among the more controversial topics. However, it’s important to recall that the roles of culture and child rearing cannot be ruled out in such cases. And while “small behavioral sex differences” associated with testosterone have been demonstrated in young children (72), most studies tend to show more overlap than difference in typical child development.

Inferior serves as a much-needed corrective to assumptions that science provides clear, objective evidence that significant differences exist between women and men. As science strives to gain a clearer picture of women, it’s more than apparent that women are far from inferior. Indeed, the theme of humanity’s plasticity runs throughout Inferior, suggesting that men and women have more in common than not. And that, indeed, is a great discovery.


[*] Saini, Angela. Inferior: how science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press, 2017.

[†] Saini observes that the biases that kept women from participating work likely prejudiced science’s objectivity. Women in science, regardless of how underrepresented they are due to social disparities (ranging from childcare to gender bias and sexual harassment), has influenced how science is performed, with new ideas being considered and old ones challenged, very often by women scientist. (10).

[‡] Saini argues here (and elsewhere when disputing how the Google memo got the science wrong) that Darwin was hardly the only man of his time to conflate structural inequality with biological differences (14–8).

[§] That’s not to say all species engage in promiscuous behavior, just that it’s incorrect to assume that all females are monogamous (136–7).

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.


[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot

The hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

In the previous post, I discussed how hobbies in fiction help develop characters, something which can set up expectations of character behavior as well as lend itself to exploring a work’s thematic elements. In part II, I look at how hobbies influence setting and plot.

Setting and Hobbies: Everything in Its Place and Time

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
While exploring his passion for travel in a horse-drawn caravan, Toad (from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows) and company’s road trip goes horribly awry when they are run off the road by the agent of Toad’s future downfall: the motorcar.

Because characterization is the most obvious effect a character’s hobby has, it’s perhaps less intuitive that character hobbies make demands of the setting. Hobbies, however, must be conducted somewhere and that’s where setting comes in. Some hobbies, being rather portable (reading), can occur wherever it suits the writer, while others dictate the setting where they occur (surfing). Writers, therefore, can use hobbies as a reason to place characters into a specific setting where they wish the scene/story to occur. Travel for pleasure[*] happens to be a rather effective hobby that allows writers to introduce their characters to new people, places and experiences. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows regularly falls in love with new means of transport (whether its rowboats or motor cars) that let him travel and adventure. While Toad’s hobbies often reveal his impulsiveness and reckless side, one of the book’s notable adventures begin when Toad’s enthusiasm for the latest vehicle spurs him to gather his friends to travel and seek excitement. Similarly, hobbies can signal the story’s timeline. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the presence of Garbage Pail Kids collectible trading cards reveal Tracey’s subversive edge and her tendency towards divisiveness as well as places the timeline in the mid-1980s.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould.
The popularity of the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards was sufficient enough to warrant a vinyl doll. Cuddle up! (Photo credit: R. Gould.)

Setting the Plot: Hobbies, World-Building and Plot in the Harry Potter Series

Given the greater burdens that exist for establishing settings in fictional genres that involve world-building,[‡] character hobbies can be a useful means for conveying information about these settings. Fantasy novels, for example, typically involve intense world-building since they diverge from strictly realistic settings. J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter series in a hidden magical realm that exists alongside the real world. Although a portion of her setting existed, the magical areas of the world did not. Therefore, she needed to create the parameters for these magical places, their inhabitants, their society, how these realms and their elements interact (eg, magic makes electrical items malfunction), and so forth. Newcomer Harry Potter acts as the reader’s stand-in for these discoveries in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.[§] Rowling uses a common childhood hobby to allow for comparisons between the magical and nonmagical settings to illustrate how the former operates (in its role of world-building) as well as cleverly introduces a mean of revealing information that forwards her novel’s plot significantly.

The Famous Witch and Wizard Cards: Hobbies as an Approach to Establishing Setting

Much like Smith, Rowling employs trading cards in her story—but with the expected magical twist. While traveling to wizarding school, Harry purchases the unfamiliar foodstuff of the magical world. Among his sweets are Chocolate Frogs, which come with the Famous Witches and Wizards (FWW) cards. In the real world, trading cards that feature real people often provide an image of the person and some relevant information about the individual (eg, baseball cards indicate the player’s position and stats). The FWW cards Harry receives mirror such cards in that they include a picture of the witch or wizard accompanied by a biography that lists their claim to fame and other interesting trivia such as their hobbies.[**] What makes them different is that the cards are enchanted, with the images moving like living people (Rowling 101–3). In addition to allowing readers to see how trading cards differ between these realms, these cards also prepare the readers and Harry for how other pictorial representations behave in the magical world (eg, portraits that he encounters speak to people and travel from frame to frame). Its role in helping establish expectations for this magical setting, then, even supersedes that of delivering (or confirming with some details) biographical information about school headmaster and major character Albus Dumbledore—the subject of Harry’s first FWW card.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
In addition to confirming Albus Dumbledore’s academic credentials and reputation for dealing with dark wizards, his Famous Witch and Wizarding card informs us that he enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling, a possible nod to Dumbledore’s more whimsical side.

Setting to Plotting

Rowling’s ingenuity is not limited to creating comparisons between the world Harry knows and the one he’s joined. In contrast to Smith’s Garbage Pail Kids, the presence of the magical trading cards reveal little about the children collecting them (as I noted above, we learn more about Dumbledore here). However, Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. During his first weeks at school, Harry and his friends (Ron and Hermione Granger) become aware that some important item recently arrived at the school for safekeeping and that there had been attempts to steal it. Having learned through unintended admission that the hidden object involved both Albus Dumbledore and another wizard named Nicolas Flamel (a name Harry is certain that he read previously), the children begin researching Flamel in hopes of finding more information about the object and why it is being hidden. Shortly after the Christmas holidays end, Neville Longbottom gives Harry one of the FWW cards for his collection. It’s the Dumbledore card, which mentions his alchemical work with Flamel—hence the reason Flamel’s name seemed familiar to Harry. With this insight, Hermione locates the necessary details about Flamel, which in turn reveals that the Philosopher’s Stone is the item hidden at the school (102–103, 218–220). Discovering that the mystery item is the Philosopher’s Stone (as well as why someone would steal it) is a major plot point here, and it’s Harry’s modest hobby of collecting FWW cards that allows the children to make this leap.

Hobbies and Fiction

Rowling frequently and often playfully employed hobbies throughout her Harry Potter series, using them to reveal facts about characters, forward plot and even provide opportunities for her fictional adolescents to change settings (Quidditich, for one, gets them outside the castle). Writers such as Rowling, of course, rarely add details about characters to provide a laundry list of biographical data, something which most readers would likely find dull. Instead, she provides hobbies with specific goals: showing Molly Weasley’s kindliness when she knits Harry a sweater for the holidays or revealing Hagrid’s pet hobby of raising dangerous critters, something which informs the plot in a few places (in this book and others). Including character hobbies is among the important decisions a writer makes when developing a character, one that stretches beyond the role of characterization. Therefore, the hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.


[*] Travel for personal enjoyment allows many fictional detectives to leave their normal environment and discover mysteries in the wild, as it were. It’s also a matter of practicality in detective series: mysteries always started at the detective’s office or set in an amateur detective’s hometown can become formulaic.

[‡] Genres most identified with world-building are science-fiction/speculative and fantasy fiction, both of which constructing new worlds. I’d argue historical fiction also belongs here, as world-building in this genre takes the form of reconstructing the world of the past.

[§] However much it annoys me that the American title differs from the British one, it’s the title of my copy and therefore the one I must use for the citation:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[**] Hobbies within hobbies! Of note, the FWW cards play a role in characterization here, although it’s not the scene’s focus.

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.