Quirky Characters

Today, I want to talk about quirks.

We all have quirks, whether it’s the eye roll whenever we hear a tasteless joke, the habitual clearing of the throat to gain someone’s attention, or the hip thrust with the hand placed on one side in the indignant pose when someone is acting silly.

Your characters do have their own unique quirks, don’t they?

If not, you are seriously missing an important element in your writing: creating an engaging character. In my last post, I rambled off a little story post. In this, a child was experiencing her taste of winter as her mother walked into the kitchen. The mother had a very interesting quirk. Let me refresh your memory with a snippet.
The water in my palm splashed onto the outdoor carpet as I wiped my hand on the hard fibers. I scooped another unformed snowball up, flicking away the tainted bits until I found a clean spot. My teeth bit down, shoveling the flakes inside, cooling my tongue. The cold white caused a brief shiver through my muscles and brought a grin to my lips. The snow tasted like presents.

The snorts proceeded her into the kitchen. My mother sucked in air through her nose claiming her allergy irritated sinuses. Every five seconds it happened, punctuating the air and halting her mumbling words spoken to herself. Yet the action seemed more instinctual.

When she had watched television, the noises would stop with her fully focused on the glowing screen. After the show had ended or an annoying commercial appeared . . . snort-snort-snort.

Back in the kitchen, I heard a large deep snort of disgust. She must have noticed the open porch door, felt the cold draft, realized whose shadow sat in front of the sun-filled storm door window.

For the mother, her snorts became her quirk. A psychological tendency she had during her boredom or when angry as she showed her disgust. When her mind focused on something, like watching television, the snorts never appeared.

A quirk can be anything, but it has to first identify the character. Even more, a writer can change such a trait - evolve it - with their character whose behavior should evolve and change with the story plot.

An example: You have a shy female character. Her quirk could accentuate this shyness, like a lopsided grin she only allows herself as she hides her laughter. By the end of the story, events change where she is more comfortable with herself. The defining moment is when she lets out a guffaw of laughter around those people who once made her feel uncomfortable.

Another example: You have an intelligent male character. His quirk is the classic raising of the eyebrow when around those people he feels are intellectually inferior. During the plot, he meets a mentally-challenged person whose childlike tendency softens his heart. Whenever this person shows bursts of compassionate wit, the intelligent male character no longer raises his eyebrows but scratches them in humbleness.

A quirk doesn’t have to take a center stage in the story. I’ve read one where the quirk was so dominant in the character, spread throughout the text constantly, that I grew bored and disconnected with the book. This was a true shame because it was a really good story. But a writer can kill an audience’s interest instantly when the only thing holding together the storyline is the quirkiness of the character. (I find this happening more often in humorous stories than anywhere else.)
Here are a few types of quirks you can give to your character:

Reflexive reaction/motion - This is when a character’s quirk only appears if something else happens. Oftentimes it covers up their own emotions.

- A peculiar sneeze or a cough during an embarrassing situation.
- A muscle tick or chewing on fingernails in nervousness
- A tapping foot or cracking knuckles in impatience.
Psychological habit/tendency - This goes at a deeper level. Something traumatic had happened in their past and it forces them to have such a quirk today.

- A trembling leg whenever seeing a dog cross the street caused by a dog bite happening during their childhood.

- The rubbing of hands when hearing a news story about a house fire or seeing someone flick on a lighter. Perhaps when he or she was a teenager, the character had vandalized a house by setting fire to it without knowing there was someone else inside.

- A clearing of the throat and spitting on the ground when seeing a parent verbally disciplining their children. It goes back to the character’s past when their parents disciplined them, perhaps in a negative way.
These are but a few idiosyncrasies I have listed. I encourage you to find your own to fit into your particular storylines. Give your characters quirks to make them unique to the reader, but don’t overdo it. As with every element involved with writing a good story, find a balance.

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