Sunday, March 15, 2009

Eating Cheeze Whiz While You Do Your Nails and Other Character Quirks

Real people have quirks. I recently heard a story about a girl that was a nail artist with inch long fake nails and sprayed on designs that was also totally into the American flag and Cheeze Wiz. They say you can't make this stuff up - but you can. Writing believable characters might require you to start grabbing all these crazy anecdotes you've heard, filing them away, to bring out later and mix and match in your writing. One of my latest collectibles is about a woman that picked the lock when her guest was taking a shower because she thought someone left the water running.

I recently visited the house of someone that decorated their house with a combination of naive art and antiques, while feeding all of the neighborhood stray cats. They spent a fortune on cat food for animals they didn't own and couldn't pet. Or the wonderfully casual comment from the rich guy who has a huge house with multiple bedrooms, swimming pool, and a crew of migrant labor to clean his grounds and when you describe your 650 square feet of living space says "oh that's plenty big enough for two, what more do you need?"

If you want to be a writer you have to start to develop a strong streak of curiosity, a certain amount of objectivity (i.e. be amused by the comment by the rich guy and file it for later instead of popping him in the face), and a good memory - or a good filing system. Remember to avoid clich├ęs. One person might like to bathe every day and moisturize their skin twice a day while another person might forego bathing for days yet they both are obsessed about beauty and aging. Pick the set of character traits that serves your character best, and preferably the one that is less common if it works. The important thing to remember, regardless of the well-worn adage that "fact is more unbelievable than fiction" is that if you can think of it it's probably true somewhere so just write it with conviction and you'll bring your readers with you.

Speaking of aging: older characters tend not to be as popular with collaborative fiction writers. Very often writers go for the young and physically perfect. It's good to remember that young people simply don't have as much life experience or cumulative time to pick up wonderful idiosyncrasies as older characters (though my example of the nail artist was a young woman). Older characters can provide a level of depth to your writing that might be lacking from your typical young and nubile. Adding just ten years to a character's age can result in greater opportunities for peeling back the layers of your character's personality to keep the reader engaged.

A character doesn't have to be likeable but they do have to be fascinating to keep a reader's interest.


Helen Ginger said...

It's always good, too, when thinking of quirks or personality traits for your characters is to consider whether those traits could be lived with year after year, in case your book becomes a series.

Lynnette Labelle said...

What a wonderful post. Always good to get a reminder of these things. I keep telling myself I have to be more of a people watcher without looking like a gawker. LOL

Lynnette Labelle

Pan Historia said...

Keep gawking, Lynnette! It yields gold for writing.

And thank you, Helen. Actually since I write collaborative fiction in an ongoing series format I think your point well timed and is well taken. Some traits could easily become trite or boring after a while, particularly if over-relied upon. Long term characters definitely need to breathe and grow over time.

Scarecrow said...

Great advice.

I'm glad you mentioned older characters. So many people want to write a character in their late teens/early twenties, but no older. Some of that is based on the age of the writer. But characters above thirty have more experience, more reason for being the way they are, and more motivation. More emotional depth I suppose. [I suppose that could be a reflection on real life too.]

Imagine my killer ten years younger. Even though his past is never mentioned it would make a huge difference in how he's perceived. He's also an example of someone who is driven by his quirks and hopefully that can be sustained over a long period of time. He's got a lot to do at

Vincenzo said...

Quirks add interest to a character who should already be 3-dimensional. They don't make a character, but they can make him/her stand out, make him/her memorable. A character with quirks who doesn't already have depth is just quirky, known for his/her quirks. So, don't rely on quirks to flesh out a character. Think of quirks as condiments.

Pan Historia said...

True, Vincenzo, but I think I was using the term 'quirks' with a little more mileage - I was using it to mean all the little likes, dislikes, and mannerisms that distinguish our behavior from other's. After all on the page action often speaks far louder and more vibrantly than inner dialogue or flashbacks.

Vincenzo said...

You mean be more descriptive of a character's actions in a scene, not necessarily quirks? I completely agree with that. More show, less tell. I wrote a scene once where a character was about to be fired. Rather than just say she was nervous and distraught, I had her twisting and folding and unfolding and untwisting a handkerchief while she talked with her employer. A small thing, but I think it added something about the character without actually saying it.

Scarecrow said...

I think a character's repetitive gestures and actions can say a lot about them. With my couple, Andre and Meredith, Mere often puts his hand on the back of Andre's neck. It's an intimate gesture that's both comforting and possessive.

If a character is only defined by his quirk, I think he would get old fast, but quirks can reveal a lot about a personality or a person's past.

Gel-Nails said...
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