Larry Brooks says that quirks don’t add characterization. I don’t agree. His three dimensions of characterization (existence, inner landscape, and action) don’t take into account subtext and symbolism.
I think he also missed the fact that a quirk is often a behavior, a habit. Which translates into action and fits directly into his three dimensions.
Admittedly, you don’t need quirks in every character. And often they’re subtle.
But to outright claim that they don’t add characterization is flat wrong.
A well-written quirk crosses the line between characterization and character development. Characterization is the means of showing the character to the reader, and character development is the process of creating the character in the first place.
With the quirk, a writer can blend the two. Consider it a literary device. It foreshadows. It reflects. It puts the reader in a state of mind to more readily accept who the character is. Before that, it gives the writer a better view of the character, and can inspire insights into what the character could be.
A quirk – played skillfully – seeps into the marrow of a character. Tweet it
What IS a quirk, really?
It’s a peculiarity. Specifically something unusual in behavior, habit or personality, according to most definitions. An odd physical trait can pass for a foundational quirk as long as it has deep ties to the backstory or part of the personality.
Wait, what makes a quirk foundational?
And that effect shouldn’t be forced. In regard to phobias, Scriptshadow disdainfully calls forcing an effect “a cute little setup and payoff.” And I can’t argue.
If there isn’t a deep connection between the aspect (whatever it may be) and the story, it isn’t foundational.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s possible to start with a random quirk and flesh out the character around it, guiding the development by creating meaning behind the quirk. That’s not what I mean.
A forced effect might be an odd clothing choice – perhaps a gold pocketwatch – that gets the character accepted at the door of a private club, but isn’t actually related through backstory. Happenstance. Or deus ex machina.
Setup and payoff.
Give it some meaning, like the club being owned by the man that he admired but will now need to kill, and you have a foundational quirk.
The foundation of a main character is never just one aspect. Add desire (wanting to be like the club owner), fear (losing trust in his judgment), and inner conflict (will he kill the man or not) and you have a heavily intertwined foundation.
Land Your Character in the Hall of Fame
A quirk should never exist JUST to make the character memorable or look pretty. Tweet it
One solid visual (habit, manner, or otherwise) is easier to remember than a unique grouping of rather ordinary aspects. The reader’s mind latches onto that one thing and all the other information about the character is remembered through that detail.
When you add a great quirk, you’re setting up your character to compete well against all the other characters they’ve ever come in contact with… to get into the Hall of Fame in the reader’s mind.
You might even call the quirk a mnemonic device.
It’s Not Just the Big Stuff
When you’re looking for a quirk, remember: it doesn’t have to be in-your-face obvious.
There are several levels of quirk intensity. The walking quirk, the defining quirk, and the subtle quirk.
Walking quirk (Kramer, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Steve Urkel, Monk, C3PO, Captain Jack Sparrow, Spock) – The quirk is such a major part of the personality that the reader doesn’t ask why it matters, though they will probably wonder why the character is that way. Certain instances are self-explanatory even in that regard, often playing on stereotypes. Steve Urkel and Dr. Sheldon Cooper are geniuses who simply exist in another mental dimension.
Defining quirk (Captain Picard, Barney Stinson) – It sums up the character, conveying the gist of the personality in one fell swoop. It’s noticeable and obviously meaningful, but doesn’t come up as often as the walking quirk.
Subtle quirk – The subtle quirk is small but mighty. Readers might not pick up on it as a quirk because it’s effect can be almost subliminal. But if it were brought to their attention, they could point out the significance within the personality. A tell when lying can be a subtle but essential quirk with an unreliable narrator.
You shouldn’t be afraid of using subtle quirks. Small habits and mannerisms – interrupting or holding a door – are telling. Your character might well have the perfect quirk already in place.
A subtle quirk can even create memorability despite its stealth. The meaning of an image or action can work on a subconscious level, and the intrigue of subtle quirks will attract some readers more than an obvious quirk.
- Symbolize another aspect
- Ground the backstory in the present
- Foreshadow a later event
- Reinforce one side of a personality contradiction to make it more believable
- Represent a whole contradiction
- Symbolize half of an inner conflict before that half is revealed
- Represent a relationship between characters with a similar quirk
- Push the plot with unintended consequences, including reactions from other characters
- Push the plot with the continuance of a habit in a stressful situation (quite realistic)
- Support or juxtapose other actions
An action is never just an action. It’s part of the story. The same goes for any trait.
Quirks are fun. They’re a staple in comedy, and they’re so versatile you can use them in a tragedy. In fact, I believe Shakespeare did.
I hope you’ll use quirks to create loyal readers with Hall-of-Fame-worthy characters.
What is your character’s quirk? Is it subtle, defining, or walking? Comment and tell me.
Quirk is one of The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters
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