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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?