We talk a lot here at the blog about strong, unforgettable characters. Which ones do I most vividly remember? What makes them so unforgettable?
One of the common denominators is that they all have at least one attribute that 1) I admire, or 2) draws me to them in some way. As a shy teenager, I fell in love with Anne’s (of Green Gables) vivaciousness—clearly expressed through her nonstop chatter. Every Christmas, I watch Elf and laugh my mistletoe off at Buddy’s socially awkward brand of innocence.
The key, I think, is to give our characters a quality that is admirable, likable, or somehow inspires empathy. Then we’ve got to show this positive attribute in a way that cements it in readers’ brains and leaves no doubt as to why they’re drawn to the hero.
One easy way to do this is through the use of quirks—small, original mannerisms or habits that are unique to a character. While these area often randomly applied as a way of making a character offbeat or “quirky,” I’d like to focus today on how to utilize quirks deliberately as a way of showing your character’s positive attributes. I’ve found that the best way to apply them meaningfully is by pulling them directly from the character’s personality or emotional wound.
Quirks Via the Character’s Personality
Identify your character’s primary attribute. Maybe it’s a trait that will help him achieve his goal. Perhaps it’s one that matches his morals and values. Regardless of what you decide, his primary attribute needs to make sense in light of his history. His upbringing, core beliefs, profound past events—all of these things should play a part in determining who he is in the current story, so take them into consideration when choosing his stand-out trait.
Brainstorm actions that exemplify that trait. If your character is meticulous, what are some realistic mannerisms that she might acquire? Maybe she would obsessively clean (Monica Geller, Friends). She might count her toothbrush strokes and steps to the bus stop (Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction). Perhaps she would make fastidious notes on post-its and stick them all over her apartment (Dr. Emma Russell, The Saint).
The cool thing about choosing a quirk is that the possibilities are limitless. You just have to find one that fits with your character’s whole personality. Take note of her flaws, fears, and other issues, and make sure that her quirk fits her.
Use your quirk to show the attribute. Plenty has been said about the value of showing instead of telling in our writing. It’s the difference between someone saying that your new roommate is a little strange and you figuring it for yourself when you find her talking to her extensive ceramic bunny collection.
When someone tells you something about another person, you hear the information, but it’s impersonal—until you witness it for yourself. Then you experience an emotional response. This emotion is what you want to evoke in readers, so instead of stating outright what kind of person your character is, show it through the use of a well-chosen quirk.
Quirks Via the Character’s Emotional Wound
An emotional wound is a negative experience (or set of experiences) that causes pain on a deep psychological level: Getting dumped, suffering from a learning disability, being wrongfully imprisoned, living with an abusive caregiver, etc. These are things that change a character. The event was so painful that they fear its recurrence, so their lives become one big carefully orchestrated attempt to keep anything like it from happening again. One of the common side effects are quirks.
Imagine a character whose parents favored a sibling over her. She may grow up determining to never make anyone feel that pain—especially her children. Fairness becomes an obsession, one she takes so far that it borders on the comical. Each Christmas, one of her kids’ stack of gifts is topped with an envelope containing change—$7.92, because she spent that much more on the other child’s gifts. Maybe each kid’s stack has the same number of presents, even if it means her son gets three pairs of individually wrapped pairs of underwear. Her determination to be fair in all cases continues even after her children are grown. She’ll never not answer the phone if it’s one of them—even to the point of picking up during a job interview.
It may sound over-the-top, but the person I’ve just described is someone I know, with this “fairness” quirk coming directly out of her biggest wounding experience. Past traumas and their ensuing fears can easily birth quirks for a character. It’s just a matter of figuring out what the wound is and brainstorming some quirky possibilities that make sense.
A Few Final Tips
Use quirks sparingly. As with any other gesture or habit, quirks that are used too often become distracting. Choose fitting times for your character to show his personality so each instance has meaning and serves a purpose.
To wrap things up, I’d like to close with two examples of how quirks have been used to convey character personality. The first is an example of how not to do it.
How Not To Show a Quirk: Back in 2013, I (briefly) watched this show called Revolution. Great premise, but there was a lot wrong with it—one of them being the main character. She cried in every episode. It got so bad that my husband and I started betting on time slots to see who could guess when Charlie would overflow. This mannerism of hers was completely overdone, and worse, it didn’t tell me anything about her personality.
The writers must have gotten my memo because all of a sudden in season two, the waterworks were gone. While I was glad, its sudden departure showed that it wasn’t a true indicator of her personality. This is a good example of a quirk that didn’t make sense for the character and was used haphazardly, without purpose.
How to Show a Quirk: On the other hand, the first time we meet Hermione Granger, she starts off her mostly one-sided conversation with Ron and Harry by informing them that she’s learned all the course books by heart and that all the spells she’s practiced have worked perfectly. Her bragging is a quirk that she exhibits fairly consistently; it’s a sign of both her intelligence and competitiveness but also of her insecurity.
As the books progress, her bragging progressively lessens and eventually disappears—a sign that she has successfully navigated her character arc and no longer needs to prove herself. This is a great example of an effective use of a quirk to show a character’s personality.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.