There's that V-word again
So why do I harp on hobbies? Because it's part of verisimilitude. Yes, take a shot every time one of these columns uses that word and you'll have alcohol poisoning before you get partway through the first year. But it's important, darn it.
The entire act of roleplaying is so tied to making our characters feel like real people, and that means we need to expend extra effort to make them feel real. Hobbies are what a lot of us use to define ourselves and enrich our lives, such as, well, roleplaying in the first place.
It's also an easy step to skip, especially if you have interest in just playing the darn game. (At some point an article should be written about the split between playing the game and roleplaying in the game, but not this week. Not next week, either. Maybe the week after.) Your character doesn't behave like someone who has hobbies. She spends her disposable income on things that allow her to improve her job performance rather than stupid crap. She doesn't ever burst into a room excited about a new article about something totally irrelevant to the thrust of the game. She has a personality, sure, but she probably has zero interests outside of work.
In short, she needs to get some hobbies.
Figuring out hobbies
A good hobby has a few ingredients, for real life as well as roleplaying. We're only talking about roleplaying here, though, because this column is not a path to self-improvement.
The first criterion, which is super-relevant for this discussion, is that a hobby is not just your job done off the clock. If your Jedi Knight is a master of the lightsaber, then practicing obscure forms isn't a hobby but a quirk -- a useful quirk and an interesting one but still not a pure hobby. I don't describe MMOs as a hobby any longer because they are tied in with my job; deckbuilding board games and awful movies, however, are pure hobbies.
Despite that, a hobby should be something that makes reasonable sense for the character. Your Jedi enjoys combat, so in all likelihood her hobbies are going to involve combat in some form. There are a lot of possible hobbies that connect to that, some of which involve combat more peripherally than others. Maybe she really enjoy assembling models and replicas of military machines. It's not directly tied to fighting something, but it lends more definition to an existing character trait.
That's also another one of the major points to look for in a character hobby -- that it says something extra about the character. You could just as easily make a master of combat a lover of romantic stories, painting her as someone who fights out of idealism and necessity rather than a love of combat. Or perhaps she enjoys dancing because she's big on physical activities and training her body. All of these suggest something about the character, and in turn they suggest additional hobbies or potential interests for the future.
Last but not least, you want something distracting. You want your character to have something that's enjoyable as more than just a bit of background for character downtime. It's another tool to motivate your character, the promise that even though she might not get anything out of a situation, she might get a chance to learn some new dances or songs or whatever.
The long-term benefits of hobbies
So aside from making your character more realistic, what does having a hobby actually do for your character? First of all, it gives her something to want. This might seem irrelevant until you try giving her a gift.
It's generally better to give gifts that aren't tied directly to game mechanics, but if all your character does is fight, there's not a lot you can offer. If your character has hobbies, on the other hand, you can make a point of giving gifts that have little to no value in the game. Sometimes this can even overlap with mechanics in strange ways -- I have a character in Star Wars: The Old Republic who collects weapons, and thus others will sometimes give her a weapon, especially an unusual modifiable type.
Second of all, it allows you to give characters more to do. A group of characters who enjoy dancing will have a reason to go out to an inn or a large city in hopes of having some live music. Someone with a love of fiction will haunt libraries. I've never been a fan of roleplaying that centers around "we're all here in this space, now talk." Hobbies give you the potential for characters to find shared interests.
Lastly but most certainly not least, it gives you something interesting to talk about. This isn't true of everyone, but I love hearing other people talk about their hobbies, even those that I don't share with them. Especially those I don't share with them. I don't need anyone to tell me about Mass Effect; I know all about Mass Effect. I don't know next to anything about BASE jumping or bartending or horse riding. Giving your character an interesting hobby gives him or her something to expound upon at length, and that's always worthwhile.
There are comments below, and I have an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org); you know how to use both and I'm not saying it again. Next week, I'm dipping back into the RP 101 series to talk about figuring out whether it's interesting to you and where you go to kick things off.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.