What I'm reading: Burn, by Nevada Barr
Thanks to Laurin for her excellent advice on making settings matter. Settings are excellent ways to show more about your characters.
My recent visit home triggered some thoughts about other ways to approach dealing with the characters who populate our novels. We've all met people with identifying characteristics. Sometimes it's physical appearance. Sometimes it's an unconscious gesture. Sometimes it's speech patterns.
All of the above are ways to help your reader see and understand your character. But what about some other idiosyncrasies? Does your character have an endearing habit? What about an annoying one? Is the character aware of how the habit might affect other characters on the page? Does he care?
You know those clever little magnets that you put on the dishwasher that say "clean" on one side and "dirty" on the other? In our house, they would have been a waste of money because my mother never left clean dishes in the dishwasher. As soon as it finished running, it was emptied. The one night she complained about how tired she was, but couldn't go to bed until the dishwasher finished, my dad told her she could do it in the morning. No go. We finally agreed to wait until the cycle was over, and one of us would empty it.
She also virtually washed the dishes before putting them in. And our running joke was that she would have the dishes done before we finished eating dessert.
And, she always set the breakfast table before going to bed. However, she didn't do a complete setting. She would only put out the appropriate plates and cutlery. Cereal bowls and a spoon, or a plate and fork for eggs. Now, once my brother and I were riding the bus to school and out of the house very early, she left us to get our own breakfasts … but she wanted to know the night before what we would feel like eating in the morning. It was easier to say something, then make the switch ourselves the next day. From time to time, she'd leave a frying pan on the stove with two eggs in it, where she'd written "eat me" on the shells, so she expected us to cook them for our breakfast.
Now, decades later, she hasn't changed at all. When I was visiting last week, I still got grilled in the evening about what I wanted for breakfast the next day.
Little things like this can add interest to a scene. Just remember that there has to be another plot-related reason for the scene to exist. Showing quirks isn't reason enough to justify a scene. But if a character idiosyncrasy can create some kind of conflict or tension, and throw an obstacle in the way of your character, it can add depth to your story. Or, it can serve to bring characters closer together as they recognize the habit for what it is.
Do you know people whose idiosyncrasies would work for a character? Or characters whose idiosyncrasies make them memorable?