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Character Building: Using Quirks to Reveal Personality

It's my privilege to host  Becca Puglisi here on my blog today. Becca is the co-author of several fantastic writing resources, including the popular book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression.

If you're like me, you long to make your characters more unique and interesting but sometimes struggle to know how. And in a crowded book market, having vibrant and unique characters is becoming an important way to help our books grab reader's attention.

Today, Becca shares some excellent tips on how to develop stand-out characters. Please help me in welcoming Becca!

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Using Quirks to Reveal Personality

By Becca Puglisi


I’ve spent the better part of this year thinking about characters. Which ones do I vividly remember? What makes them so unforgettable?

One of the common denominators is that they all have at least one attribute that 1) I admire, or 2) draws me to them in some way. As a shy teenager, I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables Anne Shirley’s vivaciousness—clearly expressed through her nonstop chatter. Every Christmas, I watch Elf and laugh my mistletoe off at Buddy’s socially awkward brand of innocence.

The key, I think, is to give our characters a quality that is admirable, likable, or somehow inspires empathy. Then we’ve got to show this positive attribute in a way that cements it in readers’ brains and leaves no doubt as to why they’re drawn to the hero.

One easy way to do this is through the use of quirks—small, original mannerisms or habits that are unique to a character. While these area often randomly applied as a way of making a character offbeat or “quirky,” I’d like to focus today on how to utilize quirks deliberately as a way of showing your character’s positive attributes.

Here are some quick steps on how to do this effectively:

Identify your character’s primary attribute. 

Maybe it’s a trait that will help him achieve his goal. Perhaps it’s one that matches his morals and values. Regardless of what you decide, his primary attribute needs to make sense in light of his history. His upbringing, core beliefs, profound past events—all of these things should play a part in determining who he is in the current story, so take them into consideration when choosing his stand-out trait.

Brainstorm actions that exemplify that trait. 

If your character is meticulous, what are some realistic mannerisms that she might acquire? Maybe she would obsessively clean (Monica Geller, Friends). She might count her toothbrush strokes and steps to the bus stop (Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction). Perhaps she would make fastidious notes on post-its and stick them to every surface in her apartment (Dr. Emma Russell, The Saint).

The cool thing about choosing a quirk is that the possibilities are virtually limitless. You just have to find one that fits with your character’s whole personality. Take note of her flaws, fears, and other issues, and make sure that her quirk fits her.

Use your quirk to show the attribute.

Plenty has been said about the value of showing instead of telling in our writing. It’s the difference between someone saying that your new roommate is a little strange and you figuring it for yourself when you find her talking to her extensive ceramic bunny collection.

When someone tells you something about another person, you hear the information, but it’s impersonal—until you witness it for yourself. Then you experience an emotional response. This emotion is what you want to evoke in readers, so instead of stating outright what kind of person your character is, show it through the use of a well-chosen quirk.

Use quirks sparingly.

As with any other gesture or habit, quirks that are used too often become distracting. Choose fitting times for your character to show his personality so each instance has meaning and serves a purpose.

To wrap things up, I’d like to close with two examples of how quirks have been used to convey character personality. The first is an example of how not to do it.

How Not To Show a Quirk: Early on, I almost quit watching the show Revolution because of the main character. Charlie cried in every episode. It got so bad that my husband and I started betting on time slots to see who could most accurately guess when she would overflow. This mannerism of hers was completely overdone, and worse, it didn’t tell me anything about her personality.

The writers must have gotten my memo because all of a sudden in season two, the waterworks are gone. While I’m glad, its sudden departure shows that it wasn’t a true indicator of her personality anyway. This is a good example of a quirk that didn’t make sense for the character and was used haphazardly, without purpose.

How to Show a Quirk: On the other hand, the first time we meet Hermione Granger (in the Harry Potter series), she starts off her mostly one-sided conversation with Ron and Harry by informing them that she’s learned all the course books by heart and that all the spells she’s practiced have worked perfectly. Her bragging is a quirk that she exhibits fairly consistently; it’s a sign of both her intelligence and competitiveness but also of her insecurity.

As the books progress, her bragging progressively lessens and eventually disappears—a sign that she has successfully navigated her character arc and no longer needs to prove herself. This is a great example of an effective use of a quirk to show a character’s personality. It also proves that quirks can be used to show not only positive attributes, but flaws, too.

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Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.


Becca is giving away a PDF copy of her newest book The Positive Trait Thesaurus (above)! Enter the Rafflecopter for your chance to win a copy!

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What do you think? What character quirks have you seen or read that were effective in conveying personality?

Winner of giveaway: Jill Harris 



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