(I extracted this post from an upcoming free ebook Character Fiction 101: How to Write Fictional Characters and Character Stories.)
When I first started writing stories, I read numerous online articles and guides about developing characters. You’ve probably seen them yourself. Even many established authors have posted similar character profile worksheets. Most of them focus on surface characteristics, quirks, or hooks, like her hair- and eye-color, her smoking habit, the way she eats her hair while she’s talking on the phone, or the lisp with which she pronounces her R’s. But these are all just, at best, surface manifestations of what really makes a character feel like a real person— or fails to make her real.
These quirks are just what we see on the surface. But character is what happens under the surface. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English defines character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual” (emphasis added). Character is not the physical manifestations we observe on the surface, but the psychological ones we don’t necessarily observe. Or as Holly Lisle put it, character is “who you are when no one is looking, and who you are when someone is looking, and how those two people are different, and why.” Character is what you discover when you dig deep down into a person’s personality.
Your character herself, in fact, may not even be able to describe to you her character. Most of us, if asked, would not be able to explain the true, deep-down reasons why we do most of what we do. The human mind has an amazing ability to rationalize any choice, any decision, any action. But even though your character may not realize that she lashes out at her boyfriend because of the same psychological trigger that causes her to lash out at her older brother, even though she may not realize this, you her author must.
So don’t expect to be able to throw a bunch of quirks together to form a character. Quirks can enhance character, but they cannot make it.
Use quirks judiciously. Deep characters usually have well chosen quirks that support their character. These apply to a plethora of situations and make the character seem consistent in his quirks and character.
Quirks can flesh out a character. They can pull us deeper into a character. They can show us who a character is. But quirks are not character. Quirks can only bring out what character is already there.
You should generally know who your character is before you start giving him quirks.
On the other hand, characters with many quirks can serve a purpose in a story. These characters are frequently shallow by nature, because the overabundance of quirks makes them inconsistent. However, because they’re so entertaining, you can add these characters to a scene to spice it up. You don’t have to think much about being consistent with the character, because there’s not much character to start with. You might just add an appropriate quirk to make that particular scene work. These characters can work as minor characters, but they usually can’t make an engaging story.
One such character is Kirk Gleason, from the television show Gilmore Girls. Kirk has a different career in every episode, whatever fits with that episode’s gag. He lives with his mother, but he also has hundreds of thousands of dollars saved (from all those careers no doubt). He suffers from numerous phobias and psychoses, yet he’s always engaging in stunts or taking charge of something and screwing it up. He’s hilarious. It was said that if a scene felt slow, the writers would just add Kirk to it, and that would fix it right up. We remember Kirk, but throughout the show’s seven-season run, he was never asked to be the center of any major story line.
Still, at least he had some character. You could put Kirk in an arbitrary situation, and you had some idea of how he would react.
And that’s as good a definition for character as any: If you were to put your character in an arbitrary situation, do you have a sense for how she would react? If so, she has enough character for that story situation. If not, back to the drawing board.