Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Character Quirks

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?


Jan Morrison said...

This telling detail is just that! I love it and we all have a wealth of them stored up in our hearts and minds - waiting to be mined for their gold. Thanks.
Jan Morrison

Lu/Grace said...

It is indeed those little details and quirks that bring a character to life and turn them from 2D to 3D. We all know someone like that. I had an aunt who scrubbed off the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, with the hot water running at full blast the entire time. Those plates were sanitized, LOL!

Great post, thanks!!

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm working on my characters this week. Great post and perfect timing!

GigglesandGuns said...

All the little things that make people who they are are what draws a reader to a character.
Excellent reminders.

Terry Odell said...

Jan - thanks. Life experiences are great writing fodder.

Lu/Grace - your aunt would get along great with my mom.

Carol - glad it worked out!

Miss Good on Paper said...

That sounds so much like my mom! Character traits and quirks, as you said, really do exist in the people we know. This is a good reminder.

I've been blogging about ssetting today and thinking about home a lot, too. Thanks!

-Miss GOP (new follower)

Elspeth Antonelli said...

It's little habits like this that make our characters leap from the page and start to breathe. Thanks, Terry.

Terry Odell said...

G&G - can't have cardboard characters, can we? Thanks

Miss GOP - welcome! Hope you'll visit often. When we moved from Florida to Colorado, I had to write a new book set in my new home.

Elspeth - love it when we don't have to do CPR.

Lynne Marshall said...

Hi Terry,
It is always good to be reminded about writing well rounded characters. My husband sets his breakfast dishes out before he goes to bed, too. I call him OCD, jokingly of course. How can a person begin to know what they want before they go to bed? LOL - see opposites attrack.

Anyway, the last book I wrote, the hero had a habit of using his thumb to scratch his upper lip. These kinds of things should be used sparingly, and only when it plays a significant role in the sceen - for instance, as a cue that he is deeply considering what just happened. That way the reader knows what just happened really got to him.

My 2 cents anyway.

Thanks for a thought-provoking blog.

Alison H. said...

Love this post, Terry. I'm just starting a new book, and it's good to be reminded of another important way to add depth and individuality to my characters.

Judith Anne said...

I'm slogging through my first novel; this post was really helpful.

Nightingale said...

I have enough idiosynchracies that I could share them with my characters. Good advice about characters though.

Terry Odell said...

Lynne - I think you've got the right approach. Distinctive gestures, but not overdone.

Alison - glad the timing was right for you. Good luck with the book.

Judith - Hope you get away from slogging and into flying.

Nightingale - don't we all!