I recently listened to an older episode of the (brilliant) podcast Writing Excuses on the subject of Character Quirks. About halfway through the podcast, there was a bit of confusion when the contributors realized that they all had different interpretations of what a character quirk actually is.
This bites us a lot when talking about writing–there’s no firm authority defining all the terminology we use. So–what is a character quirk? How does one use them well? How do you use them badly?
The definition I’ve come to understand (though I can’t point you to a single source) is that a quirk is a trait or habit that individualizes a character, but is not necessarily informed by his or her core perspective or world view. They are devices authors use to humanize their characters and give them verisimilitude on a micro scale, rather than the broader characteristics that are determined by their personalities.
* In the Writing Excuses podcast, author Bree Despain referred to her main character, Grace, and her habit of mentally censoring inappropriate language in her first-person narrative. (And then he said something that I’m not going to repeat.) This is partly a result of her being a pastor’s daughter, raised in an environment where one didn’t use certain language. This is a quirk that is informed by the character’s past experience, and may or may not reflect her core perspective.
* Speaking of character quirks, Chuck Wendig brought up the example of Michael Weston on The Burn Notice always eating yogurt. This isn’t really something that’s informed by his core perspective–he just happens to love yogurt. Or maybe he doesn’t love it, but it’s healthy. Or he has chronic yeast issues wearing all those tight pants, and needs the acidophilus cultures. Who knows?
* My character Tay clicks his teeth together when he’s anxious. This isn’t informed by his character in any way, it’s just something he does.
This is where my definition of a ‘quirk’ departs from the Writing Excuses crowd. None of the examples I listed are really essential to character or plot, but they individualize the characters and give us a sense of continuity from chapter to chapter, or episode to episode.
While quirks can be helpful tools, there is danger in letting them stand in for genuine characteristics. These are the aspects of your character that are essential to them, informed by their core perspective and experience. Characteristics are the meat of who your character is, not just his speech habits or peculiar palate.
To a certain extent, the difference between a quirk and a characteristic can come down to relevance. If you have a character who is always feeding other people–bringing plates of homemade cookies to study group or bringing a loaf of fresh bread to share in the lunch room at work–and your explanation never goes past the fact that this is just something he or she does, this is a quirk. Now, if your character feeds other people compulsively, and this stems from a nurturer’s complex that he or she developed during a childhood spent caring for an ailing mother… that might be a characteristic. But that depends on whether you make that link in the text (not just in your head), and whether it has any impact on the character in the context of the story.
Quirks are not necessary for good character building. We don’t need nervous habits to make us believe in a character. We do need a good grasp of their perspective and motives. All the nervous teeth-clicking, profanity-censoring, and palate peculiarities in the world won’t make up for those things.