Monday, July 6, 2009

Character Quirks - Let's Make a List

Since being at camp with ten teenage girls, I've been thinking about labels. As I thought about each girl, there wasn't one thing I could label them with. I know, I know, sometimes labels are damaging and stereotypical and all that.

But think about yourself. When you were a teen, could you label yourself? What was it you did? What were you passionate about? What defined you? Made you...not vanilla?

Me: Band geek extraordinairre. I am band. Really (like you need convincing of that). It's what I did.

And I actually think it's more dangerous to NOT have something to label yourself with. What do you do if you're just...nothing?

You're boring.

And in writing, we don't want to read or write about someone who's boring.

Enter character quirks. Through all the reading and writing I've done, I've come to the conclusion that all characters that make it into print have at least one thing that is unique about them.

Be it a perfume maker (The Hollow), a teen restaurant owner (Tantalize), or a boy who breaks everything he touches (Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians), the characters have things that make them unique, gives them something they own, something that defines them.

I have a short list of things I've given to my characters (the list is short, mostly because I realized that my characters were pretty vanilla), and I'd love to know what you've done for yours.

  • Track star
  • One who listens to police scanners
  • Someone who doesn't talk much
  • Can wait forever, at least it feels like forever
  • Fixes cars
  • Installs stereo systems
  • Ballet dancer
  • A cutter

As I was typing this, I really struggled to give even one label to some my characters. I realized with a panic-heart that I haven't really done that good of a job making my characters unique and definable.

What say you? Do characters need something unique about them to set them apart from the crowd out there? What have you labeled your characters with?


Scott said...

Bites Lower Lip
Arches Brow
Drums Fingers on Table
Twirls Hair About One Finger
Has Red Spot that appears above bride of nose when angry

Ah, the list of quirks. Great topic, and very important!


M. Dunham said...

I like quirks that are less specific. Such as:

~Parks illegally.

~Always snags a free soda and says she's getting water when eating out.

~Listens to bad 80's hair band music and nothing else.

~Rabid blogger.

~Completely useless with computers.

Most of the quirks I think of never evolve into plot points - they're just little bits that make my characters flawed and human.

B.J. Anderson said...

Yes!! But I really need to work on this with my own character. He is a bit hot-headed. That's about all I have, lol. Back to the drawing board.

Anonymous said...

Being the freak psych in the group - I LOVE character quirks...the little snippets of behavior that show the reader who this character really is. My evil guys are controling, yet crazy. It comes out in tone of voice, posture and word choice. My protags are usually conflicted, with strength they don't know they have - it comes out when they are pushed beyond their limits.

More mundane quirks, anxiety problems, OCD like behaviors and hearing things - all of it can shape a great 3 dimensional character..

Great post as always!

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

I love this!

-- gossip queen
-- chain smoker
-- one character says everything she thinks, even if its something completel unrelated . . .like french toast and riding bikes.
-- one character (a guy) is a washed-up porn star

As usual, great post!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Great topic to think about. M. Dunham, those are super! I have to work at making my quirks fresh. Two in my current WIP:
--sings at inappropriate times
--throws bones to see future

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Great post! Like you I have to admit that I'm not sure I can easily list all of my character's quirks, which is funny because I think of myself as someone who likes to write quirky characters. I guess my main characters tend to have less little quirks, where as my supporting ones I like to give more odd or random traits to. Maybe I'm doing it backwards?


I'm with Kate. I don't know how it happens, but I end up making my supporting characters quirkier and, thus, more interesting. I think it's difficult for me to make my MC too quirky, because I have this weirdo fear that this will in turn make him/her unlikeable. Yeah. I need to get over that. Right now, I've got this:

MC 1: the quiet artist (yeah, yeah, my brain is screaming 'cliche' as well) who has a pretty messed up past that she unlocks as she paints.

MC 2: foster kid with attachment issues and some pretty kickin' abilities.

Ryan S. Kinsgrove said...

--talks in plural
--multiple personalities
--suffers from every disease known to mankind
--obsessed with destroying one person
--detests children
--has ability to transform
--infects whatever he touches with a random disease

All this is just one character. The main villain of my first novel, Pestilence. He's sort of based off of the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Now that I think of it, he's probably more interesting than my mc is. Lol.

XiXi said...

I don't plan quirks? This is probably wrong. I don't create a character and decide what quirks they're going to have. They usually have one main personality trait, ie snobby, and then as the story progresses, they pick up quirks that are in line with that. Hmmm...

-hates to lose
-girly girl
-loves children
-rigidly fair and just

Also, band geeks are the best! Win win win. I think I spent more time in the band room than at home.

Danyelle L. said...

Fun post!

* has a tendency to transmogrify
* loses name, thus identity
* decides to be wicked when her role is traditionally good
* Not afraid to bully people magically
* Wants to have the benefits of being human without the cost

Robyn Campbell said...

Elana, why must you make us think??:)

My characters do have things about them, horse lovers extraordinaire, nature lovers, great cooks too.

Me? I was a hippie. :) Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away!

lisa and laura said...

I love quirks! Our characters have lots of random quirks like:

-conspiracy theory obsessions
-nail biting
-a love for all things alternative
-always fidgeting
-eat too fast
-using the word crap constantly that I think about it our characters should be WAY quirkier. Dammit.

Stina said...

Well my mc had a multiple personality problem until I fixed the issue with her voice. :) Can't get quirkier than that.

And yes, she does have a list of traits that make her unique.
*honor student
*distrustful of good-looking guys (was raped by one)
*refuses to cower at home (much to the disappointment of one my critters)
*dealing with mild depression (only she doesn't know it)

Abby Annis said...

Oh, no! This post is totally freaking me out. What sets my characters apart? What makes them unique? I'm going to have to think about that.

And I was a band geek too. Totally. Even dated one of the creepy drumline guys. I know, ew! What was I thinking? :)

Anonymous said...

I was a flute and dated the tuba player. And I just got home from a camp with 13 girls! We are stronger because of it. We can link arms in fatigued solidarity.

My friend writes screenplays, and some of the best advice that he gave me is that you have to have each character speak differently enough that you can identify them without a tag. So one always says "Yo", or whatever. I found that so helpful, since most of my quirks were things that they did physically.

See Elana's recent blog posts

Recent Posts Widget