One issue I had as a beginning writer–and still do, to an extent–is how to make characters stand out. How do you do it in a way that readers can keep characters straight, but you’re not adding fluff and interrupting the flow of your plot?
INTERNAL VS EXTERNAL QUIRKS
One great way to make a character stand out is to give him
or her what I call a “quirk”: a distinguishing, easily recognizable and memorable characteristic. These quirks can be, logically, of two types.
An external quirk would be something physical about the character: a limp, a scar (Harry Potter, anyone?), an amputated limb. While these quirks verge on the more striking/obvious end of the spectrum, an external quirk can be more subtle (as in, not something disfiguring) and can serve more to give readers a good image of the character in their minds: large ears, a prominent chin, bug eyes, a high forehead. Facial hair, for a male character, can also function this way. Think of Merlin, Dumbledore, and Gandalf as examples. Also, on that note: NAMES. A unique name can also, of course, make a character stand out.
A great external quirk–and one that can do a lot of characterization for you with little effort on your part–involves clothing. A walking stick, a pair of gloves or heavy boots, a well-described coat often worn, a pair of glasses…. Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, in the Harry Potter series, is never, even seen without his handy bowler hat. And what reader of “Great Expectations” will ever, ever forget Miss Havisham’s wedding dress?
One’s clothing can reveal so much about social status, occupation, income level, even emotional attachments. Imagine a character who lost her mother as a young child, but has a brooch that belonged to her mother and now always wears it. I watch “What Not to Wear” a lot, and it’s really interesting to see how so many women on that show who feel insecure about themselves and their place in their lives will wear frumpy, large, and most of all, covering clothing (think high neck lines, long sleeves, long skirts or pants) so they don’t draw attention to themselves.
Internal quirks are not related to first-impression-level appearance, and they’re not objects associated with a character, but rather, they have to do with a character’s speech and/or habits: with his or her personality manifested through choice actions or words. Sometimes these “internal quirks” can take the form of catch-phrases (see my post On Idioms). This is often true of sitcoms: Who can think of Joey Tribbiani without “How YOU doin’?” or Sheldon Cooper without “Bazinga”? In a variation on the theme, on Scrubs, you have Dr. Cox always calling J.D. by some girl’s name or other.
The best internal quirks, in my opinion, are nervous tics people aren’t even aware they do: jiggling coins in your pocket, pulling at your hair, fingering an ear/earring (ME!), rubbing an elbow, biting a lip. Think about your characters. What would their nervous habits be? Employ them in your stories!
BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVERDO IT
The challenge for a good writer is not in giving your characters “quirks.” The challenge lies in doing it in such a way that you don’t make your readers want to strangle your characters, or you. It is easy to go overboard on that nervous habit or, worse, catchphrase, as any avid reader of Charles Dickens could tell you. Now, I love the man’s books. I think they have a lot of thought-provoking content, and his characters really move me in ways some others just can’t. That said, I’m reading “Dombey and Son” right now, and if Major Bagstock calls ONE more person (especially himself) “de-vilishly sly” or if Mr. Carker shows his teeth to anyone else, I think I might have to replace my kindle because I’ll have broken it in anguish. So, how does one balance the presence of a quirk with an appropriate use of it? Here are some quick tips.
- Don’t give EVERY character a really obvious quirk, especially an internal quirk. Settle on one or two characters you want to make a deliberate impression, and leave it there. If everyone has a catch phrase, you just seem like you can’t write dialogue.
- Don’t bring out a character’s quirk more than once per scene. Twice upon occasion, maybe, but nothing more than that. That way, it will make an impression without raising animosity 🙂
- Mix and match the types of quirk at your disposal: styles of dress, physical appearance, patterns of speech, and tics/physical habits. This tones down the impression of any one type upon the reader and helps to balance things out.
So, that’s my post for today. Which “quirky” characters have stuck with you? Do your characters have quirks themselves? I know some of mine do, for sure!