Last night I went to my book club meeting. Most of the people who'd read the assigned book actively disliked it.
I disliked it too, though the craft-related reasons stood out to me more than the types of reasons non-writing readers tend to offer. But I was struck by one thing about most of the other members' comments. They consistently complained about not being able to connect to the protagonist or not liking her.
The character spends most of her time either lusting after her love interest or doing assassin-related things. But one thing stood out as strange to some people: she also had these oddly detailed little pockets of culinary artistry in between all the killing. She literally can't make a sandwich without people slobbering to tell her how fantastic she is at it. And we, the readers, get to read the recipes.
It's slightly odd. And felt incongruous. Not because she was an assassin, but because it seemed sort of tacked on and disconnected from everything else that was going on.
I had much bigger problems with this book, but this is something I got stuck on. As we discussed it in the group, I found myself suggesting that maybe someone had told the author--somewhere in one of the editing stages--that her protagonist wasn't relatable enough to the average reader because her past, her present, and her profession are all very unusual and unique. Perhaps, I said, someone had recommended the author "humanize" her character with something down-to-earth. A hobby. Like cooking.
Good advice, I'd say, if indeed some hypothetical beta reader or editor told her to do this (or, of course, if she just thought it was a good idea herself). So why didn't it work?
Why, indeed, didn't throwing in a relatable hobby make people more able to sympathize with the protagonist, like her, enjoy her, and want to read about her?
So here's what I think. I found the cooking/food prep scenes incongruous because they were in weird isolated pockets, not tied to the character's demonstrated interests very well, never seemed to flow naturally from anything the character was thinking about or desiring, and weren't a part of her personality or mental existence unless she was actively engaged in it.
It's similar to stitching a flaw onto someone because you know your character can't be perfect. So you just invent, separate from context, a character trait or practice so you can tick off the box, but it feels like someone else decided it--not so much like the character developed that way. And to be perfectly frank, in the story my book club read, everything about the character felt externally decided. It went right down to the description of the character from an external perspective all the time even though it was told in first person; you're consistently looking at her from the outside, seeing her in action, looking at her actions and movements and the color of her eyes, but rarely feeling that she's piloting an actual life.
When writers give characters hobbies and additional interests to "humanize" them, sure, it's ostensibly to make them more well-rounded and complex characters who can feel real to the reader. But if you're doing it as part of an equation and your calculations are showing, the reader will trip over all the individual parts instead of understanding the character as one smoothly blended solution.