Some of the most common writing advice writers are given is to leave out the minutiae of everyday life in their stories. Now while I do think it makes logical sense, because you want to get to the meaty dramatic parts of a story that much sooner to keep readers engaged, I think adding a little bit of mundane everyday life can actually enrich the experience. After all;
“How you do anything is how you do everything.” – Harve Eker.
Readers can gain insight on who your characters are based on how they tackle everyday chores like washing the dishes or doing their laundry. It sounds boring on its own, but with what I’m about to share with you can either be a fun exercise you keep to yourself to get a sense of your characters, or let it become a full scene in your story that provides that insight for your readers.
The Meaningfully Mundane
So what am I talking about? How can one possibly make the mundane memorable? How do you even start?
You start by understanding your character’s temperament and how well or how poorly they take on the boring chores of everyday life. Do they brush their teeth only enough to get the taste of morning breath out of their mouth, or do they meticulously brush every single tooth from every nook and cranny? Do they hop in the shower for less than a minute or do they make it a meditative practice of feeling the warmth of the water wash them of their worries of the day?
What you want to do is invoke your character’s personality in how they take on these everyday tasks. Depending on what point you’re at in the plot and what has happened so far, how they take on daily tasks can also become part of the symbology of your story. That is of course, if you want that particular task to be repeated more than once in the story to symbolize your character’s state of mind.
Let’s take for example a therapist named Linus. He is everything you’d expect from a therapist; someone who has his life together who helps others get their lives together as well. He starts the story off with having healthy hearty breakfasts in the morning, listening attentively to his patients at work, and then coming home to relax by keeping the place tidy and habitable.
But then somewhere down the line, he is confronted by hardship. Linus is given a client named Damon that is so down in the dumps and desperate that despite Linus’ years of experience, he can’t seem to help Damon open up about his life or take any positive action to improve it. Linus prides himself on being an effective therapist, but that pride holds no weight now because he begins to feel like a failure due to not being able to help this downtrodden man.
Now Linus is rattled about himself and all his years spent studying psychology in university. His goal was to help people, but he feels insecure about his capacity to do so. He is lost and mere routine is no longer enough to keep himself stable and capable of being the therapist he knows how to be.
Taking a second look at his daily routine further in the story, it would then devolve compared to how mindfully and meaningfully he once approached it. Instead of taking the time to fry up some eggs and bacon, toast some bread, and brew himself a mug of coffee, he starts settling for a granola bar and drinking an entire pot of coffee to force himself to get through the day.
He goes to work barely listening to any of his patients because he’s obsessed with how and why he can’t help Damon, and he barely has the energy and motivation to keep his place tidy when he gets home from work. A once spotless kitchen now sports unwashed dishes, trash bags that have yet to be taken out, and a dining table cluttered with unopened mail.
For Linus, taking care of his home and his patients was his own personal therapy. It’s what gave him a sense of purpose and joy in his life, but it has been disrupted by one challenging patient he can’t seem to help. Maintaining his home routine and doing well at work go hand in hand, one affecting the other. Maybe now what he needs is a break in his routine and actual therapy himself from a trusted mentor.
Whatever the case may be, how he approaches mundane tasks like preparing breakfast and tidying his home have changed because his mental state and life circumstance has changed as well.
Micro and Macro Triumph
In my example story about Linus the Therapist, he starts off with a solid routine that he falls off from when he’s confronted with conflict at work. It is through self reflection and growth that he must return to wholeness by disciplining himself to take care of himself and his home in order to become an effective therapist again.
Being able to help Damon with his personal life and his daily routines would be the macro triumph and that would be symbolized further with the micro triumph of both men cleaning up their homes and their selves in order to act properly in the world, which would be the macro triumph.
Each man doing tiny things in their private lives would greatly impact how they present themselves to the world and operate in it because the way they handle their micro responsibilities greatly affects how they tackle their macro challenges in life.
Give Your Characters Meaningful Mundane Routines
Now obviously you don’t want to bore your readers with excess detail on mundane day to day tasks, but choosing a particular daily routine for your character to symbolize their current state of mind in the story is a sure fire way to making the mundane meaningful, as well as flesh out the plot and characters further.
What I’ve described in this hypothetical story about Linus the Therapist was very bare bones and basic for the sake of simplicity, but for your own work, it could be much more complex than breakfast, work, and keeping a tidy home. The goal would be to emphasize in enough detail how one can approach a daily routine with their heart and soul when things are going well in their lives and then neglecting that kind of discipline later on in the story because of the challenges they face, only to return back to order or something better when they’ve overcome their personal struggles.
Or even have your character start off in a state of absolute chaos and disorder either in how they maintain their homes or selves. Grooming could be a good one too where you have an unkept character not brushing their hair, barely showering on a regular basis, and wearing dirty clothing. Consider a man who wants to find the love of his life, but is constantly rejected because despite his efforts to pick up women because he’s not well groomed and all it would take is basic grooming and self care to begin appearing attractive to not only women, but also friends, family, and potential employers.
Whichever way you slice it, there is more to mundane everyday life than often noted if you take in account how much our daily routines actually affect how we appear and operate in the world.
What are some mundane daily tasks you take pride in excelling at?
Are you a great cook? Do you have a pristine home? How about a well disciplined workout routine?
Whatever you’ve got going for you, let me know if this helps you consider the importance of mundane daily routines in your life and/or the fictional characters you are writing about!