I was going through some old folders of things I’d kept from high school and college the other day and came across an envelope with my name on the front and a dozen or so scraps of paper inside. It was only when I opened it and read a couple of them that I was reminded of my high school drama classes and the various exercises we went through to try and develop different characters. For this one in particular, envelopes were passed around with each person’s name on the front. Instructions were to write on a slip of paper a few qualities about each person and put it in the appropriate envelope. Ultimately, the task was to come to school the next day and embody the exact opposite of what the slips of paper dictated who you were to other people.

Despite that the majority of my descriptions either included or were solely “tall, nice, talks fast” and that I must have had no other option than to come to class the next day walking on my knees and being slowly rude to people, the exercise, if it had been done properly, was actually quite a good one as far as character development. It’s easy to start writing with an idea of what types of characters are going to play parts in your novel or other work of fiction, but to truly write them well, they must be layered, multifaceted and have quirks and odd qualities individual to each. Then, of course, these little nuances, histories and habits must be brought about discretely and appropriately, because it hardly works if in introducing a character, the author simply lists and dictates who this person is.

Even the most minor of characters must have some distinction. All of these things must be worked out. Sometimes, they come circumstantially or organically, as the plot if written or turns a certain way, a natural reaction occurs in a particular character. To start, however, an author has to really know who their characters are—even if certain traits never make it on the page, many writers are aware of them anyway.

How do you develop and enhance your characters so that they become real people instead of flat, two dimensional archetypes?

7 Responses to Quirks

  1. Cynthia says:

    The first thing I try to remember in character development is that no one is perfect not physically, or emotionally. The changes in characters have to develop slowly, or at last in a realistic pace. It’s fun when there are quirks to characters, it’s what makes that interesting and real.

  2. Donn says:

    I think a good way to make a character come alive is to choose at random some quirk that runs contrary to expectation, and then force yourself to explain how it fits their personality after all.

    He’s the jock quarterback, but he won’t allow homophobic jokes from the team.

    She walks everywhere in the city, but she’s got a slight limp.

    Things like that. I think 2-dimensional characters arise from their seeming predictable, typical, assume-able. “I know this type of person”. Real people aren’t predictable. They have quirks and traits that run counter to assumptions. And yet there is something consistent about them, they’re not a bag of random features. Fictional characters should be the same. Coherent, obviously, but not predictable.

  3. Jenny says:

    I tend to look at people around me to gain perspective for my characters. It’s not unusual for me to go to the mall or a park and just sit, watch and listen. Sometimes it’s a nasal voice or nervous twitch that draws my attention. I’m also a big astrology nut so I look at typical traits of astrological signs and combine them with what I visually see with unsuspecting victims and then try to see how I can fit these traits into my characters.

    The main character in my YA novel has OCD, though I never say it in the novel. He counts steps in his head and he keeps the clothes in his closet in perfect color-coordinated order and style (jeans with jeans, slacks with slack, etc.) and he totally flips if a sweater is with the short-sleeve shirts. His best friend bites her lip and twirls her hair when she’s nervous and she’s terrified of cockroaches and beetles but loves ladybugs and butterflies. I think it’s the little things like this that make characters ‘real’ and likeable.

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    I enjoy quirky characters, but I also want to know what made them that way. What I dislike intensely is when writers pull a “quirk” out of the hat for purposes of sensationalism without explaining why the character acquired this particular characteristic. My grandmother, for example, hoarded food and other consumer goods. I never understood why she had this weird quirk until my mom explained that my grandmother lived through the Great Depression, when everything was extremely scarce. Suddenly, her food hoarding made perfect sense.

  5. I was a theater geek in high school, and I’m kicking myself for never thinking of this.

    I’m about to finish the first draft of a novel and have been thinking of how I need to flesh out several of the characters, especially in the little details that make them more layered and human. This post is very timely and helpful!

  6. Julie Nilson says:

    Like Donn, I sometimes try to give them qualities that are the opposite of what you usually see in fiction. I also often borrow qualities from real people that I know–but not too many!

  7. Hermina Boyle says:

    I like establishing a foundation for my characters and use David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II to flesh out a good Myers-Briggs blueprint. I next drop my character into his / her world and observe what forces have violated the personality or enhanced it’s natural inclinations. If I need more diversity, I work on the character’s history and come up with life shifting events that impact that particular personality type. (An SJ 11 year old, for example, would have a much different reaction to a father’s drinking problem than would a 11 year old SP) These elements in turn, create mini mutations in the standard personality which are both organic and quirky.

    Sometimes I take them shopping with me and gauge their reactions, or ask their advice on one of my problems to get a better idea of their viewpoints. The real litmus test seems to be once the character is developed to put them back in the story and make sure they are true to the story arc (or that the story arc is true to them!)

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