Quirks for Characters

I’ve several times heard the advice that characters (in a novel or a role-playing game) ought to have quirks that distinguish them from each other and make them more realistic, more interesting. I can see ahead that on some upcoming edit of my WiP I will need to make sure at least some of my characters have quirks, so as usual when I wasn’t sure how to do something, I did some research.

(A-Z Challenge Q logo)
(A-Z Challenge Q logo)

One of the earliest things I was puzzled about was the difference between a quirk and a distinctive trait, possibly because my gaming roots included GURPS , which listed many different kinds of things as game-mechanical quirks One source listed as quirks two things I’d have considered traits: Katniss’ exceptional hunting ability, and Harry Potter’s scar. There may not need to be a difference; Writing Excuses 5.2 defines quirk as “something that makes the character memorable.” That can extend the word to include strengths and weaknesses , which doesn’t quite feel right to me but which Brandon Sanderson advocated.

Another distinction was quirks versus habits. Paula Wynne helped clear this up for me: habits are daily routine, automatic, hard to change; they may be unique or may be common, but can often be perfectly normal, like looking both ways before crossing a street. Quirks are idiosyncratic and may seem odd to other people, but they’re often deliberate instead of automatic (at least initially; they can become hard-to-change habits, which is part of why the two terms overlap).

Quirks and traits fall into several categories :

  • Physical (including vocal ones ), such as many tattoos,.
  • Personality, such as brutally honest, including phobias , abnormal affections ( philias ), manias , and superstitions
  • Strengths, talents, and weaknesses, which for me begin to shift from quirks to traits.

Some may not fit into any of these categories. I wouldn’t consider habits , hobbies , and diseases to be quirks, but one source does, and they dohelp make a character distinctive.

One pieces of advice I came across more than once is that quirks ought to contribute to the plot. K.M. Weiland says the quirk must be part of the story or symbolic (such as a double-jointed character being morally ambivalent), but lists things like peglegs and scars as quirks, where I think of them as not-especially-quirky fundamental traits. MJ Bush says they must be related to the rest of the character’s personality, and have some effect on the story. They list several ways to make a quirk meaningful: symbolize something else, foreshadow something, show a personality contradiction, represent a relationship with another character, or affect the plot directly. Gabrielle Massman lists three types of quirk that closely link to the rest of the story: ones symbolic to the character’s main struggle, that represent part of the character’s personality, or that contrast with the character’s core personality (for some very good reason). In addition to making characters unique, quirks can create conflict (if others react badly to them) or reveal tension (if a character manifests a quirk when under stress).

Becca Puglisi outlines a process for using a quirk, sparingly, to show some fundamental, primary trait of the character. You shouldn’t just add something random ; you ought to start with stakes and a character arc before you deal with quirks; they should reflect the backstory. They may be related to the character’s virtues and vices Quirks should be consistent, with occasional exceptions to avoid having them become flat or a caricature of themselves. If you overuse quirks your character goes from unique and interesting to unbelievably odd. They aren’t a replacement for personality

Eva Deverall provides two worksheets for developing quirks. One is for keeping track of quirks you encounter in the real world; the other poses several questions to think about (my grouping and paraphrase).

  • When and how does it manifest?
  • Why does the character do it, and how did they develop it?
  • How does it affect the character’s daily life, and how do they feel about it?
  • Who is attracted to it, or irritated by it? What problems does it cause?
  • What character traits does this quirk suggest?
I found some lists of possible quirks to use as inspiration, some of which come with warnings like “don’t use too many of them” and “not all of these might make it into your story.”
After all this research I think I will defer coming up with quirks until I am content with my main characters’ arcs and the stakes they’re dealing with, but will keep notes as I think of possibilities.

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