Write On Wednesday – Conflicting Habits

penguins facing off

The Prompt

Two characters with very different habits and routines come into contact


In the novel The Martian by Andy Weir, the head of NASA is an extremely fastidious, detail-oriented character. Weir shows this in small ways — Teddy lines up items on his desk, straightens somewhat obsessively, and is very dapper. These character traits mean that when it’s time for him to make decisions on big matters (like a rescue mission for a stranded astronaut), we’re not surprised when Teddy is cautious and makes the sensible decision, not the one we’re rooting for him to make; the one that is more daring and most likely to succeed.

The character who needs to convince Teddy to do something more risky, Rich Parnell, is on the Asperger’s spectrum, someone not great at social cues or persuasion. In the movie version, the director chose to play up this conflict between Teddy and Rich in an even more obvious way by making Rich also a slob. We first see him, in contrast to Teddy, almost buried in clutter in his office.

Our habits are an outward expression of what’s important to us (or what we’re avoiding.) 

Contrasting Teddy and Rich’s habits was a great way of communicating to the reader about their character, the things that motivate them, the things that shape their decisions. It gives the reader information they can use to decide whose side they’re on in any particular moment. 

  • As you introduce the reader to your two characters, think about the ways you can demonstrate their differences (think of Teddy carefully straightening things on his desk, and Rich, waking up on his office sofa, covered in papers, drinking from a cold coffee and spitting it into a mesh wastepaper basket)
  • Think of other habits that you could contrast: someone who values punctuality vs someone who values spontaneity to the point of being chronically late; someone who dresses lavishly vs someone who thinks clothes are merely to keep you warm; someone who reads vs someone who doesn’t (I know! They do exist, though!)
  • For more impact when you bring your characters, put them in a situation where it is absolutely critical that they work together. (I recently re-watched Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Both these Odd-Couple characters had compelling reasons for being willing to travel together even though they were so unsuited. The film wouldn’t have worked, otherwise.) Perhaps they work together and have no choice in the matter. Perhaps they are trying to save someone else (as in The Martian). Perhaps one of them is simply unable to quit anything they start, no matter how uncomfortable. You can tie the reason they must work together to the character flaw of one, or both, characters.
  • To keep this to a short-story scale, remember that you’re only examining one moment, one encounter, in the entire lives of each of these characters. 
  • When they come together and rub up against each other’s shape edges, you’re creating conflict, which is essential for great storytelling. 
  • Think about what your characters want, what they need, and how this encounter might grant (or frustrate) that.

If you share you story somewhere (and here’s why you might not want to) post a link here so we can come and read it.

Leave a comment to let us know what you wrote about today, and how it went!

One thought on “Write On Wednesday – Conflicting Habits”

  1. Just today I came across author Philip Pullman talking about this sort of thing. He explains how in early drafts of the beginning of The Golden Compass, Lyra was alone. But it wasn’t working. He finally had the idea of the daemons, and this made things better because she’d want to do something risky and her daemon would want to play it safe. It brought the scene to life.

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