Is a Quirk Just What Your Character Needs?

The right quirk can give your character depth.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. quirkblends1Characterization 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?

Like any of the cornerstones or pillars, to be foundational it has to be related to the rest of the personality and have an effect on the story.

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

Though it shouldn’t be the quirk’s only purpose, an oddity is great for making a character memorable.

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.

Meaningful Oddity

how you can use a quirk to deepen your character and storyWhen you’re trying to integrate your character’s quirk into his personality and the story, consider these options:

  • 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.

Never Boring

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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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
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Comments

  1. Shawn Farritor says:

    Wow… My mind is racing to think up a great quirky twist to my character’s behavior. The possibilities are endless!

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  2. Short story: I’ve this character, Charlie, with Tourette Syndrome. I’d be loath to suggest someone who’s got any such condition as having a “quirk”. But for my purposes, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a literary device. I’d love to know people’s thoughts, MJ, on the potential to cause offense in such circumstances. Do we need to defend art? Defend our characters’ quirks? Is it right to use mental or physical conditions as plot devices?

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    • I don’t think we should have to defend it, Richard… everything we do, everything we are, is writing fodder. Everything has unintended consequences. Fiction writing is the subtle cousin of psychology. True, calling it a device makes it sound unfeeling, but calling it a device or a quirk is just a label for the very feeling thing that we do when we write. You write what is there because it’s part of the character. Anything that can have an effect on real life will have an effect in a story too. To deny that, to whitewash it is what could be seen as offensive.

      Our job as writers is to dig in and feel what others might not, to make the “use” valid by expressing the emotions and realities of their experience.

      You don’t have to categorize or label parts of your character in offensive ways. Simply write the story. Let it stand on its own two feet.

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  3. A lot of my characters have little quirks. Like my female lead (Angela) being a tea drinker…unless she’s really tired then she’ll drink a cup of coffee even though she doesn’t like it. Or the male lead (Craig) being a coffee drinker and always has a cup one nearby. Larger quirks would be Craig’s tendency to read and write upside down when stressed…I’m not sure if that falls into the category of a defining quirk, but it’s not mentioned as much as the subtle ones. I don’t think I have any walking quirks in my novels, I may have to work on that one lol

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    • A subtle quirk can be subtle because it rarely comes up. There’s a whole spectrum of quirkiness, and the categorization is only to give an idea of how you can use them. You don’t have to fit your character’s quirk into a box.

      Walking quirks are rare, and mostly used in comedy. You’re doing fine, Robin. :)

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  4. I have a antagonist in my current work-in-process who eats Snickers Bars when he’s upset. It’s clear to everyone he eats an unhealthy diet….putting ketchup on steak, doesn’t eat vegetables, his secretary keeps a stash of Snickers in his office desk. His eating habits are wrong; however, his children and secretary don’t dare defy him his ‘wants’.

    In the story, another characters mocks the antagonist by eating a Snickers Bar in front of him. She keeps a stash in her desk as well now. She shares it with her father (who came to visit her in the office), but doesn’t offer any to antagonist (who shows up to the office unexpectedly). The antagonist understands her game at his expense, realizing he underestimated the young woman.

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    • So… it’s showing how no one can defy him, but he also isn’t in control of himself? I’m only inferring the second part. I love it anyway. :)

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  5. I couldn’t disagree more with Larry Brooks on this topic.

    I notice quirks in people all the time, and to have one in a character helps me relate.

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  6. Excellent post – you’ve really covered the topic thoroughly. Quirks are fun, but they need to be an integral part of that character, unless they are just a passing character that you need to distinguish them somehow. But I do think if you’re going to have a quirk there should be some symbolism in there. Playing with hair could suggest nervousness, but we need to know why. My main protagonist real quirk is her alcoholism, though strictly speaking, that’s more of a character trait I guess. Very happy to have found your blog.

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  7. I love me some quirky characters. But not overly quirky.

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  8. Yes. An interesting character has just the right amount of quirkiness.

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    • Nancy Goldberg Levine says:

      Most of my characters have quirks because I don’t like “perfect” characters. The hero of my romantic comedy, “Mr. Short, Dark…& Funny” has some subtle quirks.

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      • A quirk generally doesn’t break the over-perfection of a character. Flaws do. A quirk can disguise it, but it’s easy to still have a terrible Mary Sue in spite of added quirks.

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  9. My MC is chock full of quirks, mostly because she has a mild form of Aspbergers (on the autism spectrum). There are a lot of reasons I chose to make her that way:

    1. I know several people with Aspbergers, and once you can get past the social awkwardness they’re some of the most fun people to have as friends- but also difficult at times, for sure. The Aspbergers magnifies her social awkwardness (which we all feel at times, and makes her more relatable, I think) and yet proves to be one of her strengths, as she can be brutally honest in situations where others might shy away from the truth.

    2. She longs for connection, and searches for it by digging into her family’s past. She just wants to feel like she belongs somewhere, even if it’s just in her family tree.

    2. There’s a strong psychological aspect to the storyline- the MC actually discovers that mental illness runs in her family and that (supposedly) it led one of her ancestors to murder. She knows she’s different and this bit of information along with some other incidents lead her to question her own sanity.

    A rambling comment that has helped me solidify my thoughts on the topic… 😉

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  10. I have a shape shifter main character, and the only way you know what she is while she is in human form is her eyes have vertical pupils like a cat’s eyes. Is that alone a quirk or only if the town has a suspicion of shifters?

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    • Hi Kim,
      Since it’s a physical trait, I wouldn’t count it as a quirk. What habits or personality oddities does she have? :)

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  11. I have a character who has a backstory where he was raised as a feral child. Very dark, tragic backstory. Did a lot of research on feral children and effects of isolation and abuse to create him. The story is set 5 years after he was “rescued” and he is still more animalistic than human although he is on-going therapy/treatments for it and living in a facility. I idenify him as more wolf-like than human, personality/mentality-wise.

    Well, I never knew he had a quirk until reading this. I just thought it was part of his personality. But one thing he does is he sniffs people. If he doesn’t like how someone smells, he won’t trust them. If he doesn’t like how a food smells, he won’t eat it, etc.

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  12. Little_Ink_Drops says:

    This topic got me thinking about one of my main characters she plays several roles in the story other then one of the heroes she is also the call to action. Anyway in the first scene she’s in she is chewing blue bubble gum. It had slipped my mind for the most part but a few weeks ago I was writing a fighting scene and in the beginning of it she pulled out a piece of blue bubble gum and slips it in her moth at the start of the fight. It has become a nerves habit and a habit when shes in her element.
    I realized how much just that small thing adds to her character. Through out the book she struggles with who she truly is an who others want her to be, and pretends to be someone else. But the second she pops that gum in her mouth, her true self shines through. I’m not sure how much of a quirk that is but I think of it as one.

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  13. New To Writing says:

    Hmmm… I haven’t completely grasped the concept of character quirks yet, but does this quirk make any sense?
    My main character dreams a lot. A good portion of her dreams are nightmares, but sometimes she dreams of things she wants and it is so realistic that she can’t tell if it actually happened or if it was just a dream. A low-level example is that she really wanted to win her school science fair. She dreamt that she did win and went to school the next day expecting to be praised and complimented only to find out that she didn’t win.

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