Friday, May 26, 2017

Real Characters Wear Quirks (Hannah)

Hannah: Quick, Reni, tell everyone what I’ve been working on recently with my characters!

Reni: Next time, give me a heads up… Are you referring to quirks?

Hannah: Exactly! And now tell everyone what a quirk is!

Reni: Uh…

Hannah: Too late! For writers, quirks are traits, interests, or behavioral peculiarities that don’t seem to fit with what you would expect from a given character and make that character unique. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the android named Data wants to appreciate art, so he dabbles in painting, music, and acting. Hey Reni, do you have any quirks?

Reni: I don’t think so.

Hannah: I know you do! Share?

Reni: *Sigh* Fine. I love geckos and think they’re really cute.

Hannah: …Well… I know you have more, but since you’re obviously shy, we can move on to other characters’ quirks for now. 

Quirks and interests help make a character more complex, more engaging, and more realistic. They are especially effective if they are unrelated to the character’s main characteristics, or are only tangentially related. I ignored the needs for quirks for a long time. I understood their value but could never seem to come up with really good ones for my characters. I tend to think very linearly, and want every aspect of a character to be consistent, so I have a hard time tacking on traits and interests that don’t seem to fit. It’s been one of my weak points for a long time, but one of my writing friends is the exact opposite – she builds each character around its quirks.

This is an issue that’s been on my mind recently because I am trying to improve my ability to use quirks skillfully. Did you notice up above I said I was no good at tacking on quirks that don’t fit? That statement represents the problem I’ve been having. I build characters by starting from a single point and developing out from there. Quirks by their very definition have to be independent of that starting point, which is why I have been having so much trouble, and also why they are so valuable.

If you can reduce a character to the single starting point, then chances are that character is not as complex as it could be. Once you have two or more unrelated or possibly conflicting starting points for a character, you suddenly have complexity, layers, and room for character development. Sometimes you can explain seemingly random quirks and make them perfectly sensible according to the character’s development, but sometimes quirks are just there for no good reason at all except to add flavor and interest.

Either way, adding a couple of quirks to a character can work wonders for making him interesting, unique, and memorable. For a long time, I didn’t notice how quirky my favorite characters are, but now that I am paying attention, I can see that the ones who stand out among the myriad of characters I have come to know are the ones who had something special, something unexpected, something out of the ordinary… in other words, a quirk.

Here are two characters in particular that have taught me something about improving characters with quirks.

Celaena Sardothien

The main character of Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass, Celaena Sardothien, reminded me that the majority of real people are not defined by a single interest. Their essential character cannot be summed up in a sentence or two, and rarely do they only care about things directly related to their work. Fictional characters should follow the pattern of real human beings and avoid this type of simplification as well. Maas gave Celaena quirks, interests, or hobbies that were completely unrelated to her role in the story and it added so much life to Celaena.

Celaena is a woman of many interests. She is a skilled assassin in service to Prince Dorian and assigned to compete in a competition to become the king’s champion, but the way her character developed beyond this is what made her feel so real to me. Her love of books served the plot well by giving her a way to acquire new and important information for solving the mystery that arises. Her interest in reading helps her make friends with Dorian and Nehemia, the rebel princess. Despite (or perhaps because of) her difficult childhood, Celaena also loves high society and is particularly enthralled by the many beautiful dresses available to her. This vanity turns out to be a character flaw but still serves to add memorable dimension in an unexpected direction.

What I remember most about her is her love of music. To her, it is a deeply personal expression of everything that matters to her – her surrogate family, her late best friend, and who she was before she was betrayed. Though it is only vaguely explained in the first book, there is a lot of room for this particular side of her to be explored and expanded in the future.

Celaena felt like a woman with so much more to her than her job – she felt like a real person. Getting to know all of her quirks and the stories behind them felt like getting to know a new friend, and the variety of interests and desires kept the story from going in a straight line. Maas used quirks to bring her character to life.

Eliot Spencer

The TV show Leverage’s Eliot Spencer is a character who was created to fill a role but developed into so much more thanks to his quirks. It’s easy to define a character by his role. Especially in a show about an ensemble, where the whole dynamic of the show revolves around the character’s role, it can be difficult to look past the defining characteristic and find the other interests and quirks. Eliot is the team’s hitter – it says so right in the opening. His job is to protect his teammates and handle any violent situations that come up. Unsurprisingly, he’s really good at it, and loves it a lot. His affinity for violence shows up in every single episode, thanks to his job description. But if everything he did directly related to his violent nature, he would be a pretty flat character.

Thankfully, that isn’t the case. Eliot also shows a surprisingly high interest in gourmet food and takes it very seriously, and is a classically trained chef himself. This side of him doesn’t show up in every episode – in fact, it’s probably about once every six to eight episodes. Still, it is used in many different ways to show hidden sides of Eliot and send the plot in unexpected directions.

The importance of good food to Eliot is played for drama in one episode, where he is pretending to be the chef for a wedding in order to help with a con. Instead, he gets so caught up in cooking that he pretty much completely ignores the job he is really supposed to be doing and only ends up contributing because the bad guys wandered into his kitchen and attacked him. In another episode, the way he is serious about food is used for comedy when a gourmet sandwich he made goes missing, and he thinks his friend and coworker is responsible. In the last season of the show, his love of cooking is used to show a more tender side of him. He reveals that learning to cook was the first time he realized his knife skills could be used for beauty instead of violence, to create instead of destroy, and sustain life instead of taking it. An unexplained quirk of his eventually led to a deeper understanding of him as a real (if fictional) person, instead of a character designed to fill a role.


Still, if you have trouble coming up with sufficiently random quirks, I have a couple of suggestions. I have used generators (quirk generator and interest generator) to give me completely random features, and then brainstormed ways to work those into the character believably. It’s amazing how well this works with a little bit of creativity. Another way to do this is go to Wikipedia, click the “random page” button, and then somehow look for a way to relate that to your character. These exercises can be fun and helpful, but don’t get carried away adding too many random traits.

Another trick I’ve used is to take a favorite character and list out 1) anything that makes him from other, similar characters, and 2) anything that at first glance doesn’t seem to fit. (Leverage managed to create a master con artist who can’t act on stage to save her life, and make it believable, funny, and meaningful. But when my uncle first told me she was a con artist who couldn’t act, I couldn’t reconcile the two. Therefore, I would consider this a quirk.) Studying how your favorite writers use quirks can help you learn a lot, and maybe help come up with some ideas for your own characters.

I also have many other resources that have helped me, and links to those pages are all over this blog post and also gathered at the end.

  • What traits or interests does your character have that don’t seem to like up with the rest of his personality? 
  • Are there any quirks that seem completely contradictory to your character’s role or personality that you could try out? (Remember the con artist who can’t act?) 
  • How can you use your character’s quirks to send the plot in unexpected directions or create exciting new scenarios? 
  • What are some quirks that make your favorite characters particularly meaningful?

Thanks for reading!  As always, questions, comments, opinions, and ideas are always welcome in the comments. If there is any particular topic that would help you in your worldbuilding, please go ahead and mention it down below. I always want to write posts that are useful and interesting, so request away!

Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass:
Leverage's Eliot:

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