Quirks: the unusual behaviors and preferences that set characters apart. They’re often over-played in cardboard creations as their single recognizable trait. However, blending quirks gives you and your readers a much stronger experience with your creations. But first, it’s time to reexamine what quirks are, where to find them, and what they do.
Take a Look at Your Friends
I say “friends,” but I really mean “people you know.” This includes family, frenemies, and that one coworker you never really speak to (but you remember everything they said in team-building games). Do they have to keep original yellow Post-It notes on-hand at all times? Do they take naps under their desks? Are they one of those people who constantly picks at their dog’s eye-boogers in public?
Look for behaviors that stand out. Is it unusual in a given context? Does the subject frequently repeat the behavior? Congrats. You’ve found a quirk. Look for them and take note. You’ll need them.
How Quirky Is the Quirk?
A trait that makes a character stand out in one situation may help them blend in elsewhere. Quirks grow from subconscious habits, and they rarely seem strange to owners. If you have great posture because you trained in ballet as a child, that may look odd to coworkers or classmates who’ve spent the better part of their lives hunched over computers.
Many perceived quirks also grow out of minute cultural differences. The weird, flat “smile” a lot of white people casually offer when seeing coworkers is a great example. To just about everyone else in the world – it’s weird. Creepy, even. To those of us with a complexion akin to cottage cheese, it’s a passable, low effort smile. We’re expected to smile all the time, so that flat smile has comradely, comfortable undertones. It says: I’m not putting on my customer service face for you, but you share my burden, and I’m acknowledging you.
To the rest of the world, we look like androids stuck on poorly-programmed bullfrog emotes. Outside of a predominantly white space, it’s definitely a weird quirk.
Understated Character Development
Quirks offer a great path towards superior character development. After all, if they’re just habits, they’re part of characters’ daily life. Treat them as soothing mechanisms without explaining what they are; your readers will understand. Work them into the background of scenes until they become a sign of familiarity that brings readers relief in stressful scenes, or throw them into a place the don’t belong for a sense of dread.
Make a List – Check It Twice
List all the quirks. Let the list grow. Make it weird. Keep it realistic. Aim for sad. Gather all the quirks and pick two for your character.
Now, it’s time to blend. There’s a glorious opportunity for further character development here. The quirks don’t have to fit well together, in fact, it may be best if they don’t. What pair of quirks showcase internal conflict? Do any just seem…odder together? Play pairs for laughs, unexpected tragedy, or simply the natural complexity of the human spirit.
Give quirks a backstory. Characters have them for a reason. There’s a story behind every habit, even if it’s boring. You don’t have to share this with the reader, but it will do a lot more than you think to reveal the roots of characters’ personalities. Who is your character when they’re alone, without someone to distract them?
Do you have favorite quirks as a reader? What are your own quirks? Swap stories below and give your fellow writers some fresh ideas!