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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Got Quirks?

I have this thing about time.

My alarm is set for 5:41 a.m. (Sundays 7:53 a.m.). If recipe directions say bake for 25-30 minutes, I’ll pick 26, 27, 28, or 29—but not 25 or 30—minutes.

When I warm my coffee in the microwave, I use one minute and two seconds.

Never, ever, do I set things for exactly on the hour or half hour.

Is that a quirk? I can’t explain it. But when I’ve tried to overcome it, I usually fail.

Quirks make characters memorable


We all have quirks. I’m not talking about Monk-like OCD compulsions (I do love that show, however), but little idiosyncrasies that make us who we are.

Think about the character of Christopher Snow in Dean Koontz’ books Fear Nothing (1997) and Seize the Night (1998). Christopher has xeroderma pigmentosum, or XP, a rare genetic disorder that requires him to avoid ultraviolet light (daylight).

Not exactly a quirk, but throughout the novels Christopher’s condition creates, necessarily, interesting quirks that contribute to the books’ plots in ways that would make the books impossible without them.

Another great example is the character of Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Heep was a greedy man whose quirk was rubbing his hands together as he spoke, as if gleefully anticipating how he was going to cheat someone. Or was he subconsciously wiping his hands of the dirty money he blackmails his boss for?

Character quirks (or hooks or tags) can make your characters more interesting, more memorable. But, properly chosen (Uriah Heep), these personality ticks can reveal more than mere preferences and can provide critical plot points (Christopher Snow).

Up the tension or drama


In my current manuscript, one of the characters has a habit of clicking his ballpoint pen when he’s nervous. Okay, maybe not highly original or even all that unusual. But, in a key scene his quirk becomes a way to drive the scene and increase the pace to a frantic pitch.

Character quirks are another tool in your writer’s toolbox. Use them well and you can create a character, and a novel, for the ages. But beware of overindulging a quirk—too much and your character can become a cartoon.

There’s plenty of information on the internet about how to create quirky characters. Get started here.

What’s your favorite character quirk you’ve created or read about? Why did it work so well? Was it merely for entertainment, or did the quirk run deeper? How could my quirk about time be used as something more in a manuscript?

Thanks to pals Susan Miller and Chad Fore for reminding me of the Dickens and Koontz examples.


Michael Ehret is the Editor-in-Chief for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. He has written for newspapers and other print and online outlets. He edited several nonfiction books, was the senior editor for a faith-based financial services and insurance organization, and is the ezine editor for American Christian Fiction Writers.

5 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

You're a freak Mike :) Just kidding. I probably have many quirks I'm not even aware of. My husband finds food and drinks all over the house belonging to me, in windowsills, closets, etc but I think that's more absent-mindedness. Now, I'll have to ask him if I have quirks. Cute piece.

Michael Ehret said...

Did you see the movie "Signs"? One of the characters left half empty water glasses everywhere ... no spoilers, if you haven't seen it, but I'd keep my eyes open if I were you.

Ane Mulligan said...

I used to leave my coffee in the linen closet all the time.

I have a character who systematically tears every paper napkin she gets into bits - drives her husband nuts. :)

Michael Ehret said...

That's a cool quirk, Ane. Why does she do that?

Marcia said...

My mom used to say if I were ever abducted they could find me by following the tissues I folded neatly into squares. Hmmmm....