Creating Quirks for Characters

So much work goes into creating believable characters that writers sometimes forget to have fun with the process. One way I’ve discovered to keep from letting character development to become a chore is creating quirks for characters, fun traits that make my characters seem more likable or real or relatable. I believe one of the reasons for Sherlock Holmes enduring popularity is his quirkiness. Fans love that he keeps his tobacco in a slipper and his unread letters stabbed to the mantel with a knife. Those eccentricities make him seem more real because we all have habits that we like but can’t explain why we like them. If I can eventually work a quirk into a plot point, so much the better. Below are six ways to create quirks for characters.

Mannerisms

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 and reveal or conceal thoughts and feelings. My main character Rae in A Shadow on the Snow tugs on her earlobe when she’s thinking.

Speech

Giving characters unique phrases helps their dialogue stand out. 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. My dad was raised in West Virginia, so I gave that phrase to Rae who grew up all over the South.

Hobbies

I try to choose hobbies that for my characters that I know well, I’m interested in, or 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. Rae’s father is sheriff of their rural Ohio county. He’s an imposing man, 6’6”, and grew up on a farm. I thought 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. It also gives his brother-in-law something to joke about.

Food

I may raise a few eyebrows by admitting I am a writer who prefers tea to coffee. I gave that preference to Rae. She will also eat pickles for any meal, including breakfast. 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

Getting to know a character’s personal habits makes them seem like friends. Indiana Jones wears a fedora. Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot dresses immaculately and is vain about his magnificent mustache. 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.

Be Aware

Creating quirks for characters are fun, but it comes with pitfalls. I shouldn’t overload my character with quirks, or repeats their quirks too often. They will stop being engaging and become irritating. Even more important, I can’t create a character that’s all quirks and no substance. Sherlock Holmes has held the fascination of fans for over a century because a deep personality supports the quirks. I’ve read stories where a character is nothing but a collection of cute habits. So he or she is not really character. No internal structure exist on which to hang all these quirks.

Who are some of your favorite quirky characters? What quirks have you given your characters?

What’s the Story Behind This Expression?

For the character prompt today, I’d love to hear your ideas for the story behind this expression.

I imagine that this man has worked hard his whole life. Maybe a fisherman or a farmer. He looks wary and suspicious. For many years, he’s carried a secret. He’s listening to a conversation and is worried that one of the people may stumble onto his secret. He’s uncertain what to do.

For more character prompts, click here.

Now it’s your turn. How does this photo inspire a character for you?

Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an Attitude

Instead of featuring a favorite book or story this month, I’m featuring a favorite character to fit in with this month’s theme about characters. In the past few months, I’ve been rereading the Nero Wolfe mystery series by Rex Stout and marveling at his creation of Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an attitude.

The first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934 and merged two traditions in crime fiction: the genius detective, like Sherlock Holmes, and the tough guy investigator from the hard-boiled school. Nero Wolfe weighs a seventh of a ton and rarely leaves his New York City brownstone for any reason. He raises orchids and eats gourmet meals, financed by the enormous fees he charges as a private detective. His assistant is Archie Goodwin, who does Wolfe’s leg work, going out to interview suspects, cajoling or conning them to come to the brownstone for meetings with Wolfe, and acting as bodyguard. Another of Archie’s chief duties is nag because Wolfe knows he’s lazy, although he won’t admit it, and needs someone to spur him into taking cases.

For most fans of the series, Archie Goodwin is the reason we return to the books. Nero Wolfe is an interesting character, but it’s Archie who makes the series come alive. Instead of being in awe of his employer, who he admits is a genius, Archie is more exasperated than impressed with Wolfe and his eccentricities, such as his rules never to leave his home on business or to vary his daily schedule for anything but the most catastrophic of circumstances. Archie makes remarks about Wolfe that I imagine Watson thought about Holmes but wouldn’t dream of putting in print. Archie also has a way of telling a story that draws in fans, as if I’ve met him at a diner and he’s relating his latest case to me.

Some of my favorites descriptions are below.

“…the swamp-woman — the kind who can move her eyelids slowly three times and you’re stuck in a marsh and might as well give up”.

Too Many Cooks

While waiting for another detective, Saul Panzer, who is Archie’s best friend, to call in during a surveillance of a suspect, Archie gets worried when Saul doesn’t phone on time.

“At 9:15 I was sure that Alice Porter was dead. At 9:20 I was sure that Saul was dead too. When the phone rang at 9:25 I grabbed it and barked at it, “Well?’– which is no way to answer the phone.

“Archie?”

“Yes.”

“Saul. We’ve got a circus up here.”

I was so relieved that all he had was a circus that I grinned at him. “You don’t say. Did you get bit by a lion?”

Plot It Yourself

She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The tone alone was enough to stop anything and anybody. It was what you’d expect to come out of an old abandoned grave, if you had such expectations.

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death” from Black Orchids

Rex Stout wrote both novels and novellas. I think the novellas are generally better than the novels, but I have favorites in both categories.

  • Over My Dead Body
  • “Black Orchids” from Black Orchids
  • And Be a Villain
  • The Black Mountain
  • “The Next Witness” and “Die Like a Dog” from Three Witnesses
  • “Christmas Party”, “Easter Parade”, and “Fourth of July Picnic” from And Four to Go
  • “Poison a la Carte” from Three at Wolfe’s Door
  • “Kill Now-Pay Later” from Trio for Blunt Instruments
  • The Doorbell Rang
  • The Father Hunt

If you want to read the series, leave the last book A Family Affair for last. It has a plot twist that won’t have nearly as much impact if you read it before you finish the series.

Be Aware

For readers who like clean mysteries, the books do contain swear words, the first few books and the last few more than most of the others. There’s no other graphic content.

Who are some of your favorite detective sidekicks? Or what is your favorite mystery series?

Thumbnail Character Sketch

This month’s theme is probably my favorite. My site is all about characters in May. I’m a character writer. A setting can inspire me, or a plot can intrigue me, but if I don’t have characters in mind for them, those inspirations just languish in the back of my imagination. One technique I’ve learned when I want to make sure my characters act and perform differently from each other is to write a thumbnail character sketch for them. A sketch includes two or three adjectives and a noun.

I build most of my characters from faces that my imagination thinks have potential. So today’s prompt is a portrait that caught my attention because of the young man’s expression. Below is my sketch:

Observant, dry-humored college student

For more on using thumbnail sketches, click here. What thumbnail character sketch would you write for this photo?

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