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Character Building: Using Quirks to Reveal Personality

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

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!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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

Winner of giveaway: Jill Harris 

45 comments:

  1. Very cool! I have the original book, and I do pull it out now and again when I considering how someone should react or behave in a certain situation, when I'm asking myself, "How can I show more than tell here?" It's definitely a valuable tool. Meanwhile, since I don't sit down and work out my story or characters ahead of time, I develop quirks as I go, just letting it happen naturally and then writing them down. Later I sit down and assess what kind of personality this or that character has, which helps me write them into new situations, and part of that is a list of quirks both behavioral and verbal. The easiest I've found is a new character who has very little to say. Short sentences or silence. But that also means I need more non-verbal cues as to how she is feeling, what she is thinking, so it's a different challenge now instead of an easy win.

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  2. Hi, Scott! As a diehard plotter, I find it interesting to see how pantsers make the process work. I love that you're able to organically come up quirks and mannerisms as you go, then do a little bit of assessing later. I think that's the key—not just to randomly come up with characterization cues, but to think about who the character is and what makes sense for him/her. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Love Becca's The Emotion Thesaurus! It's one of my favorite go-to resources as a writer.

    In my current WIP my main character's quirk is that she is always wearing ridiculously high heel shoes because she is short and her height is something she is very self conscious about. She feels others don't take her seriously or treat her more like a child because of her height and because of it she overcompensates by being overly independent and fighting for others to view her as an independent adult.

    I did not start out intending to make this a quirk but it really works for the character and explains why she acts the way she does. I also think its something a lot of people can relate to. Even if they aren't self conscious about their height, a lot of people have a physical trait they feel makes them "not average" and can be frustrated by the fact they feel that is always the first thing people notice about them. Whether its height, weight, physical disability, birthmark, etc. I think we all have something we would change about ourselves if we could.

    To use Becca's same example, in Anne of Green Gables, Anne she is self conscious about her red hair and even goes so far as to dye it. Again, it's something we can all relate to and it's a way to get readers to connect with our characters.

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    1. Shelly, I like what you've done with your character. Her high heel fetish is a good example of a thoughtfully chosen quirk that does exactly what it's intended to: show a facet of her personality. Well done!

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  4. Quirks are one of my favorite characterization methods. They are a great way to add humor and a fabulous way to make characters seem real. Great summary of quirks and good reminders that they have to fit the character's personality, not just be thrown in as something random to garner attention. Wonderful post! (And I think I'm going to be adding the Emotion Thesaurus to my Christmas list.)

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    1. Thanks, Karen! Best of luck with your writing.

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  5. Ignatius Riley is the quirkiest character I can think of. Incredibly bright and a total misfit. Loved your first book!

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    1. I've never read A Confederacy of Dunces, but I've heard a lot about it. Have to add it to my reading list ;).

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  6. I really like this post, especially because if I don't like a book's characters, then that ruins the book for me. Even if the story as a whole is good, the characters are more important to me. And I like people who have one or two quirks; it makes them more human somehow.

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    1. Great point. Realistic, interesting characters are the tipping point for me, too. That's why I think it's so important that we get them right.

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  7. I think when you Jody used Susanna's form of rebellion in Rebellious Heart, it showed her true character of being a strong woman... and I truely enjoyed that in your book. I would love to win a copy of this book as it would be as you said a great resource in my own writing ! So glad you brought Becca and Angella's books before us and I think it would bless many a writer.
    Linda Finn
    Faithful Acres Books
    http://www.faithfulacresbooks.wordpress.com
    faithfulacresbooks@gmail.com

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    1. Nice to meet you, Linda. Thanks for popping in!

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  8. Love this post. I completely agree with, "When someone tells you something about another person, you hear the information, but it’s impersonal—until you witness it for yourself." I really want to make readers (one day) be able to witness the information/quirks of a character not just feel like they are being told about them. Also, I think I will definitely need to add Becca's book to my wish list!

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    1. Rachael, the whole show-don't-tell thing is a huge bugaboo for all writers at one point or another, but showing really does make the experience more real to readers. The only way to get a grip on it is to keep practicing. So keep at it!

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  9. I love quirks, probably because most everyone I knew growing up was quirky, including myself!

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    1. This is the coolest thing about quirks. There are so many of them, and we can come up with a ton of them just by observing the people around us. Which is much more fun than having to examine ourselves, lol.

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  10. Great post! I love quirky characters, but I have seen quirks being overused in books and shows. I've probably overused them in my own writing. I think us rookie writers are so afraid of oversimplified characters that we run too far in the other direction. Lol. I suppose, as with anything, balance is the key. :)

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    1. I so agree that quirks can be overdone, especially the ones added simply for humor, or to make a character "quirky". This may be the hardest part of using quirks effectively—getting the timing right and using them deliberately instead of utilizing the machine gun method ;).

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  11. Hmmm. . . I have thoughts to ponder. I like the (what do they call it? Tag or label or whatever) that you give characters to keep them unique, like biting the inside of a cheek or always toying with hair, but the trouble is so many quirks seem cliche. Hermione is a great example though. Thanks Becca!

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  12. I liked the way Neville Longbottom was clutzy, but by the time he was practicing to dance, and the final challenges of Voldemort, he had turned the clutziness into courageousness and stick-to-it-iveness.

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    1. Great example! I also like that by the end of the story, he was no lunger klutzy and awkward, but he wasn't the coolest kid at school, either. She did a great job of completing his character arc while still remaining true to who he was at heart.

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  13. One character quirk that sticks in my mind is from 27 dresses where the heroine is introduced in a taxi, changing from one formal gown into another. She's bridesmaiding two weddings at once and later we learn she has a closet full of bridesmaid dresses, showing us her inability to say "no."

    Thanks for such a fun, informative post!

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    1. I haven't seen 27 Dresses, but I keep hearing about it. I must be missing something. Have to add it to my Netflix list ;).

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  14. Thanks for the post. Will be thinking about quirks for awhile now!

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  15. Ahh So good to See Becca here! Great post! LOL on Charlie in Revolution. I've never seen it but I know when I write I have a red flag waving at me when a character sheds tears.

    Love "How to Show a Quirk." Excellent advice on how to show a character has grown through their quirks.

    As always, another great post from Judy and Becca :-)

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  16. Great post! Quirks (to a greater or lesser degree in various people, of course) can reveal so much about a character. We all have them to some extent but we may not even realize that they may be there until someone points out. Hubby and I often point out each others quirks and laugh about them...while continuing to have them, of course.

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  17. I do agree that some quirks are way more noticeable than others. My husband's family all have really obvious and memorable habits, but many of them also have big and memorable personalities. The quirk definitely has to fit the character.

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  18. A great blogpost about one of my favorite subjects, character development. :) Not sure if this counts as a quirk, but one of the things I love to do to show a deeper relationship between two characters is let one have a nickname for the other.

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    1. That's a great way to show depth of care between two people. A person could also have the quirk of ascribing nicknames to everyone—someone with a penchant for categorizing people, maybe? Or possibly a character with a childish, playful nature.

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  19. Good tips and reminders! I thought I'd mention that this pantser does a lot of prewrite on the character ahead of time, so I know him/her pretty well before writing their story. :)

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    1. This is a staple for me. If I try to start a story without a strong working knowledge of the MC's background, she ends up all muddled and inconsistent.

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  20. I love Angela & Becca's collection. And this post shows why. Love the way you showed the strengths and pitfalls of quirks. Thank you!

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  21. This was a great post, Becca. I really liked how you illustrated your point by using Hermione at the end of this post. That example really drove home what you were saying for me. I'm definitely bookmarking this page for future reference in my writing.

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  22. This post really made me think. I hadn't given a whole lot of thought to quirks until recently when I'd written something into a character that I liked at first, but then became annoying to me. So after reading what you wrote, I tried to think of a book I'd read recently where the author had done that well. The character Quinn from Breath of Dawn came to mind. Her quirk is subtle - and therefore, well done - but it's woven throughout the book. She has this mass of curly hair she's always trying to contain - putting it in a clip, pushing it back, trying to get it out of her way.What struck me was how this was a symbol of her life - it was wild,messy and out of control, but she was trying to establish order over the chaos. I hadn't thought it through until I read this post, but I realized it was one of the things that made the character so endearing.

    You've given me lots to think about, thanks!
    Laura

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    1. This is a great example of a quirk that has purpose. Tying the quirk in to personality is crucial, but I hadn't thought of also using it to express symbolism or theme. Brilliant!

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  23. Love, love, love this post! Thank you Jody for hosting Becca and thank you Becca for writing it! I really needed this. :) These books just got bumped to top priority on my next book buying trip.

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    1. Oh, I'm so glad it helped. I love when I stumble across something right at the time that I really needed to hear it. Good luck!

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  24. Hi
    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people regarding but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks for sharing this with others.

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