By: JPC Allen
So much work goes into creating believable characters that writers sometimes forget to have fun with the process. One way I’ve discovered to prevent character development from becoming a chore is creating quirks for characters, fun traits that make my characters seem more likable or real or relatable. One of the reasons for Sherlock Holmes’s enduring popularity is his quirkiness. Fans love that he keeps his tobacco in a slipper and his unread letters stabbed to the mantel with a knife. Those eccentricities make him seem more real because we all have quirks, some helpful, some inherited, and some just odd. If I can work a quirk into a plot point, so much the better. Below are six ways to create quirks for characters.
I’ve noticed that many times when I pray, I run one or both hands through my hair. Also, when I am losing patience but trying to hang onto a few manners, I smooth my eyebrows. Characters’ mannerisms can be connected to an activity or emotion. They can also reveal or conceal thoughts and feelings. My main character Rae Riley tugs on her earlobe when she’s thinking while her father scratches his eyebrow. They both share the mannerism of contracting the left side of their face when they don’t want to do something they know they should.
Giving characters unique phrases helps their dialogue stand out. I use “Shoot” or “Shoot fires”, an exclamation I learned from my dad. I don’t know what “Shoot fires” means, but I still use it. My dad was raised in West Virginia, so I gave that phrase to Rae who grew up in the South.
I choose hobbies for my characters that I know a lot about or want to learn about. Rae likes photography and horses, two interests of mine. I don’t like fishing, but my youngest loves it. Through his enthusiasm, I’ve learned a lot about fishing and found it easy to create characters who live to fish.
Fears and Hates
Dislikes can be as telling as likes. The mystery series Monk was built around the main character’s phobias. Rae’s father is sheriff of their rural Ohio county. He’s an imposing man, 6’6”, and grew up on a farm. I thought it would be funny, and humanizing, if he had a fear of horses. It would be especially humorous since his sister and brother-in-law board horses and give lessons. It also gives the brother-in-law something to tease the sheriff about.
I may raise a few eyebrows by admitting I’m a writer who prefers tea to coffee. I gave that preference to Rae. She will also eat pickles for any meal, including breakfast. Giving your character strong opinions on food is a fun way to add realism. The gourmet eating habits of the detective Nero Wolfe made up a large part of his character and sometimes major plot points.
Getting to know a character’s personal habits makes them seem like friends. Indiana Jones wears a fedora. Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot dresses immaculately and is vain about his magnificent mustache. Rae always carries her camera in a backpack. As I worked on my novel, I realized that habit could become a critical plot point.
Creating quirks for characters are fun, but it comes with pitfalls. I shouldn’t overload my character with quirks, or repeat their quirks too often. They will stop being engaging and become irritating. Even more important, I can’t create a character that’s all quirks and no substance. Sherlock Holmes has held the fascination of fans for over a century because a deep personality supports the quirks. I’ve read stories where a character is nothing but a collection of cute habits. So he or she is not really character. No internal structure exist on which to hang all these quirks.
Who are some of your favorite quirky characters? What quirks have you given your characters?
One way to prevent character development from becoming a chore is creating quirks for characters. -JPC Allen #ACFWBlogs #writetip #critiques #ACFWCommunity
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JPC Allen started her writing career in second grade with an homage to Scooby-Doo. She’s been tracking down mysteries ever since. She’s written mystery short stories for Mt. Zion Ridge Press. Her Christmas mystery “A Rose from the Ashes” was a Selah-finalist at the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference in 2020. Online, she offers tips and prompts to ignite the creative spark in every kind of writer. She also leads workshops for tweens, teens, and adults, encouraging them to discover the adventure of writing. A lifelong Buckeye, she has deep roots in the Mountain State. A Shadow on the Snow is her first novel.