Being a Better Writer: Character Quirks

Welcome back, writers! You’re here! And I’m … well, not. Sort of.

By which I mean this post was written in advance of my departure to Alaska, as part of setting up the big queue so that there wouldn’t be a sudden lack of Being a Better Writer content while I was gone. As Being a Better Writer is one of the main draws of the site, I’m sure you can see the logic there. On my end, the concept is “come for the requested writing advice, then stick around and buy a book or two.” Sometimes it works.

Speaking of which, watching the Amazon ratings update has been interesting. Again, the author community is still going off of the theory that some Amazon engineer realized that a whole stash of ratings and reviews from a few nations that had accidentally been misfiled, at least at the time of writing this, but hey, Colony is over a hundred at long last! Have you read that one yet? It can tide you over until the next Axtara comes out.

Okay, enough plugging my own work. For now. Let’s dive right down to business and talk about today’s BaBW topic. Let’s talk about character quirks.

This one’s been on my mind for the last day since I recently attended a dinner and saw some “character quirks” in action that were, unmistakably, just that. Some of you, by this point, are wondering what counts as a “quirk,” so let’s get into that. Hit the jump!

So, what is a character quirk? Well, it’s a little oddity that this character has that usually isn’t shared by anyone else, or at least not in the same way or by a wider group.

For example, a character hating onions and picking them off of their sandwich is a quirk. It’s a peculiar (though not if you don’t like onions) behavioral habit that stands out.

Now, I want to stress that this behavioral habit is not a standalone replacement for a character having, well, character. Do not make the mistake of attempting to define your characters by a single quirk—which actually happens quite a bit. It’s alright to introduce a character with their quirk sometimes, and let it be shown as part of who they are. But it cannot be all of who they are. That’s what we call a “one-note” character with no depth.

Sorry, I know that was an early aside, but I wanted to strike that misconception down quick. A quirk is not a substitute for character. It can be a gateway to develop character, or inspire someone to delve deeper. But it is not, under any circumstances, a substitute for actual character development and design.

No, what a quirk is for is like putting a spice on a character that already exists. It’s something that will stand out and make this character feel like a unique person … but it actually must be backed by a unique person. It cannot stand alone.

But that’s what a quirk is: An oddity. Something unique to them. This can be a facial tweak or tic, it can be a peculiar mode of speaking that isn’t shared by anyone else or marks them as distinct (for example, speech mannerisms can mark someone as being from a foreign location, and be a “quirk” compared to the location in which they now reside), or a habit they have. It can be utterly benign and unimportant to the plot (such as picking onions off one’s sandwich during a conversation about the big bad evil facing a nation) or it can be a key reveal or clue (such as looking for an assassin who’s known for picking the onions off of their plate and piling them on the side).

A quirk can be any of these things, or several of them at the same time, or none of those listed above. They are extensions, visible indicators of character already existing.

I think perhaps this is where some young writers make the mistake noted above of mistaking a quirk for character in and of itself. They see a story where a developed character is given a quirk, and then assume that the quirk is sort of a shorthand for “yes, this is character.” Then write and deliver someone whose only personality, aim, goal, attitude, etc, is entirely bound up in a single character quirk, and wonder why their character falls flat.

But that’s why. Quirks don’t replace character (and yes, you can have more than one as most people do, but be careful not to push it and overload the reader). Quirks enhance character. They’re good starting points for noticing character, but they aren’t a whole all an of themselves. Rather, quirks represent something about that person. They’re an indicator. For example, if we go back to the onions thing, the character removing onions from all their meals could indicate fastidiousness, or that they’re a picky eater. Or it could be that their aunt gave them onions on every meal when they were being babysat, and they learned to detest them.

Do you need to explore where a quirk comes from? Well, perhaps not in the narrative. After all, we don’t need a complete rundown of the cause of every single thing our character faced. That just leads to poorly-placed infodumping, or overinforming. But even if the text never addresses it, if we know what gave our character that quirk, we’ll be able to apply that to our character and make it permeate their being.

In other words, much like the prospectors of old would look for certain markers or signs on hillsides that would indicate the presence of gold, silver, or copper, readers that are experienced will look for quirks as a sign that the author has developed their character to be more than just a one-note caricature. And, if the signs read as falsehoods to those prospectors of character, IE the quirk appears only at the surface but doesn’t show any sign of being more than just “Well, that’s my quirk,” then these prospectors are going to put our book down and move on.

So then, we need quirks, but they can’t just be quirks for the sake of quirks. They need to be part of the character on display, part of who they are. Part of a greater depth, even if we’re not always seeing it.

Okay, so we want our characters to have quirks, and quirks themselves are seen as signposts of a character having more depth than simply being a flat actor upon a stage, but … How do we build quirks for a character?

It’s actually not that hard. If you’ve been sitting here thinking “Oh no, none of my characters have weird, odd little quirks about them! I’m doomed!” you can relax. For one, the view that a quirk must be “strange or odd isn’t actually correct.

Quirks are, well, quirky. But that doesn’t mean they’re weird. They can just be normal, ordinary little habits that all of us have, maybe that we don’t even recognize.

For example, constantly checking our smartphone at a spare moment of time? That’s a quirk shared by society at large in many places. We just don’t think about too consciously because “everyone does it.”

Quirks can be as simple as “likes more pepper on most foods” because that character likes the taste of pepper, or it can be something more complex like “always makes certain that their seatbelt is fastened in a vehicle, and double-checks.” Or “taps out the beat of any song they hear while waiting.” Or “doesn’t like birds.” Or …

You get the idea, I think. A quirk can be any odd little thing that we do. Sometimes it can be a shared, cultural thing, or it can be a personal one.

So why think about it in such a manner? Well, to help you identify the quirks of your characters, of course. And perhaps even your culture.

Ultimately, building quirks for our characters can come out of many places. Sometimes they can come from asking ourselves what quirk we can show readers so that they learn something about the character. Other times, it can come from asking ourselves what sort of quirks their path through life might have given them.

And other times they can be completely random. There’s a bit of humanity to someone saying “I don’t like bananas,” followed by “I don’t know why, I just never have.” That isn’t unrealistic for having no logical reasoning behind it that the character knows of. That’s … just how people are. And what we, as writers, seek to replicate when we give our characters their little quirks.

So they can come from anywhere. But I do caution, once again, not to simply make them “Lolrandomz” for the sake of being eye-catching and random. First of all, not everyone is insane. Second, such character attributes are usually done to mask a lack of character, to attempt to distract the audience from the hollow shell the character is by use of the “glitz.” So don’t just dive for the purely random quirks that are eye-catching. They can work, but make sure you have an actual character and you’re not just trying to hide the lack of one.

So there we have it. Character quirks and … Oh, wait. No, we’re missing one last bit of this topic: where do we apply them?

Well, this is bit where it may be up to you. As noted above, we can use quirks to show off aspects of character or culture, and if that is the case, then we will want to place them in those portions of our story, IE where we’re introducing that element of culture or showing the reader something about the character.

But we can also use them as a spice, and in that case it may be something we add in to “season” a scene. Just something to break up a bunch of dialogue, or give us a breather for our pacing in an action scene. Depends on the quirk, but you can use them in clever ways.

You can use them for clues, too. I recall a mystery I read as a young child where the protagonist tracked a man internationally because he had an odd quirk of always taking little clumps of sandwich bread when he ate out and rolling them into little balls in one hand, which he would then drop. The protagonists used this to track them across several countries, and it was how they eventually caught them.

Point being, quirks can serve a lot of purposes. They don’t have to, but they can. If you need a quirk for a clue, you can do that, or you can just make some seasoning out of it. Maybe experiment a little and see what you can come up with.

Anyway, that’s it. A quirk is a odd little personal or cultural tic, something someone does that can be benign, speak to their history, or even just oddly and endearingly human. We use them in our stories to aid our characters in having more depth, but we can also have a secondary usage for them of adding spacing, flavor, or even showing our audience important details like clues.

Quirks should never be used to conceal a lack of character. They’re part of a complete person, not a sole attribute. They’re only one part of the recipe.

But used well, you’ll give your characters memorable moments and lines, season their scenes, and earn a satisfied audience.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Character Quirks

  1. There’s a bit of a ‘mirror-tree’ effect with observed personality quirks, i.e. a quirk can relate back to a deeper personality characteristic, which reflects in more quirks that you may not see right away, some of which can reflect back to reveal more personality bits and pieces, and so on. Picking on myself for an example, the first thing people will probably notice when they meet me at a con is that I have my glasses on a string. That’s because I’m nearsighted, BUT I don’t wear bifocals because they bug me since I’m also a tad autistic. I’m also forgetful, so I don’t have a glasses case to carry them in (and lose them) when I’m not using them. That leads to another characteristic that I’m always
    wearing black pants with a red shirt since it makes packing clothes easier, and I try to wear a large nametag since I have such trouble remembering other people’s names, so I think it should be easier to remember mine.

    Holmes could read me like a book, large-print and children’s edition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is groovy, Max – thank you. I’m reviewing my characters now for body types, styles and such. Adding “quirks” to the dimensions that make them distinct, human, real to my readers and memorable. Great post!


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