NF – Quirks

I wonder about quirks. Not choices that the character makes so the author can add realism to the character (I have a friend who – every time there’s a loud noise – looks to the door and not the source of the sound) or flaws (I’m not sure why every YA heroine has to be clumsy) that’s used to make the character seem not-so-perfect.

But quirks themselves. Herminone’s untamable hair. Not actually relevant to the plot, nor a choice she makes. But it’s fun nonetheless.

Look around and you’ll start noticing it in people too. The interesting people anyway, and they’re all interesting once you delve in. Everyone is the main character in their own epic story, right? But my husband lifts his pinky when drinking tea from a mug, but not if it’s coffee. My mom’s left foot falls heavier than her right when she walks – and always has. My friend’s four-year-old developed a thin rash around her mouth once she stopped sucking her thumb, replacing the habit by lip-licking. Each quirk is fascinating.

Using them in story can be difficult, I’ve found. Not developing them, which is always a blast. But finding a place to mention them. If your character (like Sarah in Linked) studies humans, the trait helps to wiggle them in. But for the most part people don’t notice them, and they’re rarely intentional, so what makes a character think about it?

Side note: Yes, a character must think about something in order for me to write it. The world is too big, too detailed, and too fast to waste time on what the character doesn’t see. If they miss it, then so will the reader.

The easy solution, of course, is to have another character notice and point it out. But I find myself limiting my creations if I have to have a character present at some point who is both perceptive enough to see the quirk and bold enough to point it out. Not an easy trope to work into every work just for the sake of deepening a character.

The other slightly-more-difficult option would be to put the mannerisms in and hope the reader figures it out. By our earlier definition quirks aren’t pivotal to the plot in some way. So he always puts the syrup on his sausage as well as his pancakes. A nuance someone really paying attention can pick up, but not something that matters in the end. I like to think of it as something an actor playing the part will do, or perhaps an ultra-fan will point out when the story gets wildly popular. Another side note: That’s why I write novels and not for screen or stage. Control freak that I am, I want to be able to fully design the character and not leave that up to the actor.

My favorite way is using a quirk to buy time somehow. Even just a “she tugged at the hem of her t-shirt” in the middle of an uncomfortable monologue can have your readers doing the same, and therefore relating to her. Yay!

The worst way to approach a quirk is to only bring it up when it’s convenient. Don’t wait to tell us that she peels the corner of her canned goods until someone points out she didn’t, and therefore must be controlled by robot aliens. Give us a couple scenes to notice it on our own first. “Coincidences are to get your character into trouble, not out of it.” I don’t remember who said it, but I’ve written by the phrase ever since I first read it online somewhere.

But I do wonder if every character needs a quirk? Yes, I should know what they are, but as with every detail in writing, my knowing it does not mean the reader should. Sarah’s breathing pattern changes every time she’s hosting Victor, and again when he’s in control over her. Not something she’s aware of. But do I mention it? I, the author, would likely to an actress portraying her, but not to the reader.

Point of view is everything.

In the tabletop gaming I play, you can choose to have your character have a “trait” and a “drawback” to balance. But just plain ol’ quirks are up to the player to add. Traits and drawbacks are intended to add depth to the character, but I’m not convinced – if the player is good enough – that the character really needs it.

Same goes for storytelling. Hero, sidekick, even villain – they all have quirks in their personalities. It’s up to the author to not only discover them, but to decide when to artfully reveal them to the readers.

What about you? What are your favorite quirks, either real or fictitious, that you’ve come across in reading or in life? I’d love to hear what’s memorable and what strikes you as an interesting detail in a character.


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