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Habits in fact and fiction

I finished reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. It’s an excellent and useful book (especially because I need to change my eating habits). This book also helped me understand character development in fiction.

Here’s a brief summary of what Duhigg says about habits. We go through a habit loop of cues, routines, and rewards. Let’s say you are walking through the office, and someone set out a box of donuts at the end of their cubicle. That’s your cue. You pick up a donut and eat it. That’s your routine, and you wind up doing it whether you’re hungry or not. Still, when you eat the donut, you get the reward of enjoying its sugary goodness (along with the downside of gaining extra weight from unneeded calories).

The habit loop is driven by some sort of craving. It could be a craving for the sugar rush that comes from a sweet, or the satisfaction of getting something for free, or the fear that if you don’t eat the treat now, you’ll miss out. The key to eliminating bad habits is to find alternative routines that respond to the same cues, fulfill the same cravings, and reap the same rewards. For example, when you see the donuts, you can head to the kitchen and get a healthier sweet like yogurt or fruit.

Just as we are creatures of habit, so are the characters in our stories.

Consider Harry Potter. For the first years of his life, he goes through a familiar, though unpleasant routine living in the Dursley household. Then Hagrid shows up, and Harry is whisked off to Hogwarts. He has to change his routine to live according to the rules of the school (more or less) and to help Gryffindor win. Whenever Voldemort or some other baddie shows up, Harry’s habits are disrupted again as he does battle with them.

Or do their habits change? Harry and his friends keep finding ways to bend the rules of the school and wizarding world’s establishment to save the day. Voldemort keeps finding different ways to build his forces and seize power. Their routines only become more intense. That’s because they are driven by cravings and rewards. Voldemort lusts for power and the satisfaction of crushing his opponents. Harry seeks love and acceptance and wants to protect those who care about him. They stick with routines that work, discard ones that fail, but they maintain the same craving and pursuit of their reward.

The habit loop can force characters to change in unexpected ways. In The Ghosts of Reseda High, my main character is driven by a desire to please his mom and protect his best friend. When his circumstances change, those desires cause him to change his routine — which eventually puts him in conflict with those desires.

The Power of Habit can help us understand the habits that drive ourselves, businesses, and society. They can also help us develop better characters for our stories. By developing habits for our characters, we can give them motivation and greater depth of personality.

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