Wednesday, January 6, 2016

4 Tips For Creating Character Quirks

So, you've done all the hard work that comes with making a fully-rendered character. You know all the important events of this character's life, you know who their friends and lovers are, and you've delved deep enough into their psychology to know exactly how they'll react to everything you're going to throw at them in the upcoming story. You have, in essence, made the dough, baked the cake, and put the icing on top. It's perfectly fine as it is... but it would be a little bit better if you added a few sprinkles.

Because everything is better with sprinkles.
The sprinkles, in this dessert-related metaphor, are your character's quirks. By themselves, they're not enough to make up for a burnt crust or stale icing, but on top of a character that's already really good, quirks can be the final, finishing touch that makes that character great.

There's just one problem... how do you give a character quirks? Well, follow these simple tips, and see if anything strikes you.

Tip #1: Look At How This Character Grew Up

Examine your vocabulary for a moment, and ask yourself where you picked up your iconic phrases. Was it because you had a friend in third grade who always set the standard for classroom lingo, and one or two sayings just stuck? Did your grandmother have a phrase she always said around the house, and you, your mother, and your aunts all adopted it without any real thought? Did your dad, or older siblings, have a particular thing they said that you adopted to try and imitate them?

What did you say, boy?
Childhood is full of quirks that stick with you into your adulthood. A character's favorite candy might be connected to a certain relative, or a family member. A favorite song, or a hated one, might be as a result of something that happened when the character was just growing into their teens. Would a folksy background occasionally shine through the sheen of sophistication on a big city lawyer? Does this character refer to a sweet, carbonated beverage as soda, or pop? Or do they instead just call everything Coke, regardless of the brand name?

Tip #2: Look At Their Work History

Once someone is old enough to be employed, they start absorbing the culture of their workplace. Whether it's rushing around a restaurant as a member of waitstaff, de-greasing engines in a motor pool, or being all you can be as part of the army, every job leaves it's mark on people who do it long enough. Sometimes all it takes is leaving that job behind for a while for the quirks to fade, but some of them hang on, and become a permanent part of a character's personality.

He just can't sleep with the lights on.
For example, if a character had to keep to a certain schedule for several years, it might be something that's impossible to break. The result is someone who keeps the hours of a vampire, needing half a dozen cups of coffee in the morning to function, but who is wide-eyed and ready to go if working in the wee hours. Did working in England give the character a taste for tea instead of coffee? Did time spent in prison mean that the character developed coping mechanisms that appear strange on the outside? Things like always sitting with his back to a wall, or responding to even mild disagreement or challenge with threats of overt violence?

Tip #3: What's Happened In Their Adulthood?

We never stop growing and changing, and just because someone has reached adulthood that doesn't mean that person is now stuck in their ways. We pick up new interests, and we branch out into new hobbies. Maybe we were introduced to them by a friend or significant other. Maybe we stumbled across them on our own, and just stuck with them.

Some hobbies are odder than others.
For example, did someone who suddenly found themselves as part of an affluent community take up wine tasting? Or develop an interest in fine art? Did someone from a poor community spend a lot of time at the museum because it was free on weekday afternoons, which resulted in an eclectic knowledge of bizarre history? Everything from a casual interest in stage magic, to learning how to sing, play an instrument, or speak another language can all be considered quirks if they're a kind of hidden talent that doesn't show up on-screen very often.

Tip #4: What Are They Afraid Of?

Not all quirks are harmless things; sometimes they speak to the darker parts of our pasts, or the shadows of our psyches. For instance, someone whose uncanny valley is triggered by clowns or dolls won't be able to deal with these tiny reflections of humanity. Other people may be unable to deal with cities at night, because of all the in-grown, programmed fear they've absorbed of dark alleys, loud noises, and grimy gutters. Other people may be unable to handle the quiet of the country, especially at night, when anything could be out there.

Sometimes fear quirks are less vague. Someone might refuse to eat in a certain restaurant, or is really uncomfortable around dogs. Stage fright could be a real, palpable fear, often stopping someone from putting their true skill or knowledge on display. It's also important to ask what characters aren't afraid of. Characters who love spiders, who think snakes are adorable, or who can walk out on a 30th story ledge without the slightest hint of vertigo have quirks... and they're quirks that, in the right circumstances, might prove quite useful.

Just Add A Few

Quirks, much like sprinkles, should be added with a bit of restraint. Having a few can add a final touch, making your character cupcake really unique. Pouring half the bottle onto your sweet, though, will end up with a glut of extras that hide the meat of the character underneath. Remember, it's best to have a few quirks, rather than throwing in a few dozen. One or two add flavor, but more than that you start to drown out the rest of your dish.

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1 comment:

  1. More than a quarter-century laboring in corporate America has provided me with a gallery of characters and quirky behaviors to incorporate into my stories. I’m not a people person, but as a writer, I observe human nature keenly. I feel this will make my stories and the characters who inhabit them more credible. And, of course, I always change the names to protect myself.