This man’s face has so much to interest a writer. He’s elderly, but with thick, long, wavy hair. Most elderly men in the U.S. don’t wear long hair. His teeth are worn. The creases in his face reveal hard work, or years of stress, or the stress of years. And his expression prompts questions? He’s concerned or worried or disturbed. About what? What is he seeing?
My first instinct is to say he’s worried about a family member. But maybe he’s an old wizard and one of his spells is going wrong.
Having just returned from camping with my oldest and 150 other middle school kids, I can swear before a court of law that people are quirky. I had conversations with a girl who is also a writer and working on a fantasy. I saw a twelve-year-old boy ad lib in a skit like a seasoned comic.
For me, inventing quirks for characters is one of the most enjoyable tasks when creating them. Below is a revised version of an article I posted two years ago.
Mannerisms: What mannerisms do you have? I’ve noticed that many time 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 reveal or conceal thoughts and feelings. My main character Junior in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers rubs his nose when he’s thinking deeply.
Speech: Are there certain words or phrases you use a lot? 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. One character in my novel says “Holy smokin’ cows!” I like the idea of combining “Holy smoke!” and “Holy cow!” to create something unique.
Hobbies: If the hobby will be key part of your plot, choose one that interests you. Or one you can develop an interest in. I don’t like fishing, but my youngest loves it. Through this enthusiasm, I’ve learned a lot about fishing and find it easy to create a character who lives to fish.
Fears and Hates: Dislikes can be as telling as likes. The mystery series Monk was built around the main character’s phobias. Junior hates to read fiction and shares a dislike of country music with his cousin, which is unusual in the rural West Virginia county where he lives. I’ve been working with a new set of characters that includes a sheriff and his family. The sheriff is an imposing man, 6’6”, and grew up on a farm. I think 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.
Food: I may raise a few eyebrows by admitting I am a writer who prefers tea to coffee. When I gave up tea for Lent, I taught myself to drink coffee because I like a warm drink. So I’ve moved from hating it to tolerating it. 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.
Personal habits: Sherlock Holmes kept his tobacco in a slipper. Indiana Jones wore a fedora. I don’t like to drive the same route to and from a location if I have a choice. Getting to know a character’s personal habits makes them seem like friends. And a character’s deviation from her normal habits can kickstart a plot. Mystery stories often begin when someone notices a character break a habit for no apparent reason.
As much as I like quirky characters, I have to watch that I don’t overdo it. Unless a quirk is critical to my plot, one or two mentions of it is enough. I have my character only use “Holy smokin’ cows!” twice in my novel. Like so much in writing, less is more.
What quirks have you given your characters? Are they based on you or someone you know?
I am a character writer. My main character attracts me because his or her personality and relationships are ones I want to explore through story. But for me to use this characters, I need to see him or here as clearly as my friends and family. And it all starts with the face.
What kinds of faces catch my attention? After decades of looking for them, I can’t answer that question. All sorts of faces pique my interest, not just ones that could get their owners a contract in Hollywood. I just have to make some sort of connection to a face and know I could build a character behind it.
I’ve found faces in some very unlikely places, here are situations where I’ve been inspired.
Sometimes, I will pass a person in a crowd, and his or her face draws my attention. I know nothing about this person, and I don’t think I want to because I want to put my own character behind the face.
At our county fair, my kids and I were walking through the midway when I saw a teenage boy — average height, 16 or 17 years old, golden blond hair, very light-colored eyes, mustache and chin stubble. After taking several opportunities to look but hopefully not stare, I had a minor character who resembled a female character I had already selected. Now I had her son.
For my short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed a man in his late thirties, wealthy, devoted father and sole guardian of his three children. As I rummaged my memory for a suitable candidate, I recalled a soccer coach from the league my youngest plays in. I didn’t know the man, had only seen him in passing, or when his team played my youngest’s team.
He stood out from all the other coaches because he was immaculately dressed. Most of the dads who coached wore baggy T-shirts and shorts. This guy wore a navy blue windbreaker and white shorts, no bagging in sight, and his dark hair was sprayed or gelled to perfection. He looked like he’d just left his yacht. I had my wealthy dad.
I love looking at portraits, whether paintings or photos. I needed a dark-haired woman, near forty, as a villain. While watching an old Disney movie with my kids, I noticed a portrait on the wall of a set. That portrait kicked off a very successful construction of an evil character. (For those of you who know old Disney movies, it’s the portrait of Aldetha Teach in Blackbeard’s Ghost.)
While scrolling through Pixabay, this photo caught my attention. I love the contrast between the two boys. The one on the left is interested or surprised and sits further away from the camera. The one on the right appears more eager and bit of a ham.
Who are these characters? Brothers? Friends? Based on their expression, what are their personalities like?
When my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf tackled my YA novel, The Truth and Other Strangers, she pointed out that I used the same facial expressions to convey emotions, usually smiles, grins, and the width of the eyes. So I had to figure out how to describe emotions in a variety of ways.
The Emotion Thesaurus offers loads of descriptions for 130 emotions. Under each one is a definition, a list of physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of an acute case of this emotion, and cues of suppressing it, along with a writer’s tip.
Whenever I see that I am falling into the trap of relying too heavily on my character’s grins or narrowed eyes, I pick up the thesaurus. Reading the list of physical signs lifts my imagination out of its rut. Sometimes, I don’t use the exact sign the authors have listed, but the signs have sparked my creativity, and I come up with one of my own.
For example, when my main character experiences fear, I often use shortness of breath or a sick stomach. The thesaurus suggests such reactions as “lowering voice to a whisper”, “pleading, talking to oneself.”, and “stiff walking, the knees locking” among 33 physical signs. For the main character of my recent mystery short story, I decided when she was scared that she would raise up on her toes, digging in like a sprinter, to be ready to run.
These authors have other writing thesaurus, which I have not read, but I’m intrigued by The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Although I live in the country, I know I can use someone else’s perspective to see a familiar setting with new eyes.
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