I’ve read plenty of writing advice to improve your fictional characters using quirks, or hooks, or tags. That is, make the character more interesting by having her play with her hair, jiggle her keys, overuse a catch-phrase, or the like. These quirks are usually just lumped together with other character traits, but I think there’s an advantage to thinking about them separately. Because you can’t just take a bunch of quirks, throw them together, and have a compelling character. Quirks only work in the context of a character.
Holly Lisle hit the nail on the head on her website in her advice about how to write a fictional character:
I’ve read a number of otherwise-decent writing books that have you start out creating your character by giving him a hook — some little device that characterizes the person… It doesn’t hurt to do this, but I recommend that you do it later rather than sooner…
And don’t mistake a few nervous tics and a jaunty saunter for characterization. Your own character is what’s inside of you — what you’re made of when things get ugly and hard… Your character has nothing to do with whether you wipe your bangs out of your eyes with the back of your hand or always wear something yellow, and the same is true of the people you’ll be creating and writing.
As you know, I swear by Holly Lisle’s Create A Character Clinic. I use it as the second stage in my character-building process.
The first stage is to get a sense for what kind of personality the character has. This is optional, but with a complex character, I find it helps me first to know whether she’s outgoing or reserved, task-oriented or theory-oriented, logical or emotional, organized or messy, and so forth. I use resources like:
- information on Myers-Briggs personality types from The Personality Page,
- the DISC temperament model (and I highly recommend the discussion of DISC on the Manager Tools podcast),
- any psychological research on personality traits, personality types, or temperament indicators– and there is lots.
For a complex character, I find this makes it easier to use the Create a Character Clinic. Because personality types talk in generalities, but the clinic drills down to specifics. Knowing her personality helps me understand why she responds a particular way in a certain situation, but the clinic forces me put her in a situation. It forces me to think about what specific things are most important to my character, what experiences helped her round out her personality–or limited it, what she does for a living, who she has a relationship with, what hobbies she has, and what fears and aspirations she holds.
By this point, I can put my character into an arbitrary situation and know exactly how she’ll react.
For example, she’s waiting in line at the grocery store, and the customer in front of her gets into an argument with the cashier. The customer claims she shorted him $5. He gave her a $20 bill, and she gave him $10.32, but it should have been $15.32. The cashier says she gave him the correct change, counted it out to him and everything, and she even saw him pocket the $5.
“No I didn’t. You didn’t give me a $5 bill,” he says.
“Let me see what’s in your pocket,” she replies.
“No. What’s in my pocket doesn’t matter. There’s a $5 bill in there. I came in with it. That doesn’t change the fact that you shorted me.”
Into this situation, I can put each of the main characters from The Conscience of Abe’s Turn, and I know how each reacts.
Ted gets involved early, by introducing an off-hand comment into the conversation. He politely asks the customer if he can see the contents of the customer’s pocket. Before that, though, he asks the cashier if there were any identifying marks on the $5 bill she gave the customer. He finally suggests that the cashier call the floor manager over, because only she can decide what to do next. He knows she may decide to give the customer a $5 bill, to foster goodwill. But the only way to resolve the issue is to count down the cashier’s drawer. If the drawer is $5 over, that would prove the cashier shorted the customer.
Clydene, Ted’s wife, goes through essentially the same thought process as her husband. Very early in the conflict, she determines that they ought to call the floor manager, because that’s going to be the most likely outcome anyhow. But she says nothing. Rather, she first thinks the whole argument is rather silly. I mean, it’s just a lousy $5 bill, for crying out loud! She laughs to herself at how ridiculous it is. Then as the conflict progresses, she starts getting annoyed. She looks around to see if there’s another aisle that she might move to. She starts adding up the effort it would take for her to remove her groceries from the belt, putting them back in her cart, plus the time she’d spend waiting in another aisle. Then she asks whether that would save her time or just cost her more time. It’s a gamble either way, of course. Fortunately, before she comes to a conclusion, the cashier decides to call the floor manager and asks the customer to wait, while she starts on Clydene’s order.
In the exact same situation, Mira feels a tightness in her stomach. She considers pulling out $5 from her purse, to offer it to the customer so that everyone can be happy. But then she asks herself whether he would be more likely to find that insulting, or whether the cashier would get angry at her for butting in. As the situation develops, however, Mira becomes angry. Suddenly, she blurts out, “It’s only 5 lousy dollars!” She rips $5 from her purse and thrusts it at the customer. “Here! Now you have your $5, and,” turning to the cashier, “your drawer will balance out.” What happens next depends on how the cashier and customer react. Regardless, the floor manager notices the ruckus and walks over to ask what’s going on.
Michael enjoys the little scene and lets it play out a while just so he can see where it goes. He noticed little clues, like the fact that the cashier did indeed give the customer a $5 bill, and that the bill had a pen mark on it. But he doesn’t care so much about those things. After a while, he smiles and coolly remarks, “You know, it’s only $5.” Then he pulls out his wallet and extracts a $5 bill, offering it to the customer. Both the customer and cashier in unison decline, and the cashier suggests that she call over the floor manager.
Sam also sees the cashier count out the customer’s change, including the $5 bill. He also notices the pen mark. And immediately he gets involved. As soon as the cashier says she saw the customer pocket the $5, Sam butts in with, “Let’s see what’s in your pocket.” When the customer, indignant, refuses, Sam identifies himself as a police officer, tells the customer to get out of the store, and promises to have him arrested if he doesn’t comply. And that’s not an empty threat. Sam could and would actually have him arrested.
Then I finally can consider character quirks.
As the third and final stage in my character-building process, I consider quirks that would make my characters more interesting, more distinctive, and more memorable. Now, in the first stage, I already gave the character some traits you would not expect for his personality type. And in the second stage, I gave him some distinctive hobbies, aspirations, fears, and so forth. But now I can fill out the character with personality.
I like to use an idea journal for this. That is, I keep a list of character quirks. At any time, when a new character quirk occurs to me, I write it down. Then when I’m building a character, I use this list to generate ideas for the character’s quirks. Sometimes, I can just use a quirk from the list as-is. But more often, I use it as fodder for one idea-generation technique or another. So…
Ted always speaks in a dignified, formal tone, even in casual conversation. Think Alan Shore (James Spader’s character in The Practice and Boston Legal).
Meanwhile, Clydene sits alone in her home office and plays the guitar when she needs to unwind or think.
If Mira’s apartment burned down, she’d say, “At least now I don’t have to hire movers.” And she’s not afraid of getting arrested, because “at least it’s for a good cause.”
Michael loves to make fun of his antagonists by mimicking or caricaturing them.
And Sam distrusts and suspects anyone with a strong intuition, anyone who seems to know things without having experienced them first, especially someone who knows what other people will do before they do it.
Quirks can’t make the character.
I love character quirks. (I mean, what else would you expect from a Gilmore Girls fan.) But what makes a character real is not the quirks. A character’s quirks make her more interesting, more memorable. I love that Lorelai talks a mile a minute, that she is quick-witted and that it sometimes gets her into trouble, that she eats like a horse but never gains a pound, and that she runs an entire inn but can’t manage her mother… But what makes Lorelai real is that she wants to start her own business, but can’t imagine leaving her old job; that she secretly buys Luke’s old boat, because he’s acting rash and doesn’t actually want to get rid of it; that she shares secrets with Sookie that she won’t share with her boyfriend, and vice-versa.
On the other hand, a character like Kirk… Quirky is an understatement. I can’t describe Kirk, except to say that he’s not a man you want to bring home to meet your parents. It is said that when a scene got slow, they would just throw Kirk into the mix, and that would fix it right up. He is a unique, entertaining, and memorable character. But was he ever a factor in any major storyline? No.
Could he even have been part of a major storyline? I think not! He’s too inconsistent to be a real character. He’s just too quirky. Every episode, he’s doing a different crazy stunt. Very entertaining, yes. But he’s not a real character. He’s more of a plot device thrown in to liven up the action. You never truly care about him, because there’s no depth to him.
That’s why I think of character separate from quirkiness. Of these two, character is more important. So I like to get that nailed down first. Once a character has character, I can always add quirks that are consistent with it, that enhance it. But I don’t know if it’s possible to do it the other way around. And if I had to choose, I’d rather get to know a deep, 3-dimensional character than a quirky one. Quirks can show me who a character is, and they can make a character more fun or more interesting. But at her heart is her character. That’s the core that makes a character seem like a real person.
What do you think? Do your all-time favorite characters all have quirks? And do the main players in your favorite stories all have deep character?
P.S. Keep an eye out on these pages for a new writing tool, 1001 Character Quirks for Writing Fiction: A tool for creating memorable fictional characters. I’m currently getting it ready for production, and I plan to offer a limited pre-production run soon.