Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it—I’m a character. Or at least that’s what my mom used to say, but somehow I never took offense. You see, to me, being a “character” meant you weren’t ho-hum and boring—but unique, different, quirky.
You know, kinda crazy and kinda fun? The kind of person people usually remember and one who has a penchant for creating memories people don’t forget? For instance one of my quirks is that when it comes to games, I am as competitive and vicious as they get, especially when playing the game of Spoons, wracking up broken nails, bloody fingers and gouged hands galore. Once I even snatched the spoon so fast, my chair toppled back into a plate-glass window. But, you will be happy to know—I got the spoon! Of course the low point of my Spoons obsession came when I returned from the restroom during a game to discover my friends had replaced the spoons on the table with butcher knives. Ouch! Trust me—I got the point.
Okay, okay, when it comes to life, being a sore loser or crazy-nuts competitive may not be the ideal trait or quirk to have, but when you’re creating characters in a book? Oh, honey—you bet! Because the bottom line is that quirks, flaws and habits can help humanize your characters and endear them to your readers, embedding a memory—and hopefully your story—into the reader’s brain.
I’ll be honest with you—I am not the “Queen of Quirk,” but I sure do like to give my characters quirks, and here’s why.
QUIRKS CAN ENHANCE YOUR WRITING AND YOUR CHARACTERS:
1.) Quirks Make Characters Interesting and Relatable. Take Mitch Dennehy for example, my hero from A Passion Redeemed. Mitch is a gruff, no-nonsense newspaper man whose biggest quirk is he doesn’t mince words OR use a lot of them in a sentence, which I hope helps him come off as a lovable grouch such as in this example:
He stared, his breath shallow and his iron will liquefying into a puddle of metal. He pushed her back on the bed and descended, his mind focused only on the lips he craved to taste. Dear Lord, he had to have her.
He jerked away, eyes glazed with desire. “Tomorrow. We get married tomorrow.”
She grinned. “Perfect.”
He frowned. “Is City Hall open on Saturdays?”
“I think so.”
He stood. His legs felt shaky and a nerve twitched in his cheek. Desire or nerves? He wasn’t sure. He jabbed a finger. “So help me, Charity, after we’re married, no more lies. Do you hear?”
She nodded. “Whatever you say, Mitch.”
He exhaled loudly and headed for the door.
“I love you.”
“Yeah.” He jerked the door open.
“Do you love me?”
He turned to give her a half-lidded gaze, wondering which was stronger—the desire to make love to her or the desire to put her over his knee. He groaned inwardly. No contest.
In Myra Johnson’s One Imperfect Christmas, the very stressed-out heroine, Natalie, has an assistant named Deannie who has this uncanny way of sneaking up on her, which as a very wired individual, I can certainly relate to. When it happens to me, I usually jump a mile in the air, so I completely emphasize with poor Natalie in Myra’s clip below:
Clutching the flyer, Natalie stormed through the shop and slammed open her office door. With flying fingers she typed the password to open the Moonbeams file. She sucked in her breath when she saw the star in the window, exactly as it appeared in the flyer. By some horrible fluke she’d called up the wrong graphic.
“Bummer.” Deannie’s softly spoken comment startled Natalie half out of her wits.
“Deannie! For heaven’s sake!” She slapped a hand against her chest and spun around to see the girl hovering just behind her. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
2.) Quirks Can Add Humor. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best ways to add humor to a story is to give a character a quirk such as Seeker bud Audra Harders did in this clip from a ms. called No Place Like Home, giving her heroine the quirk of night blindness to add a touch of humor to this wonderful scene:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m pulling off to check out the lodge,” she answered distractedly. The truck slowed to ease over a bump.
“Why?” Nick gritted his teeth against the jarring ride. “Can’t you wait a mile?”
“The sign back on the highway said Rest Area, 1 mile. Can’t you wait that long to do your thing?” A deeper bump rocked the truck to the side. “Ow!”
“Sorry,” Rachel said, not sounding sorry at all. “Actually, my thing is exactly why we’re here. We have to stop for the night.”
He glanced from her face to her whitened knuckles gripping the steering wheel. “You’re not sick, are you?”
Her brows knitted together sharply. “Only of your grump, cowboy.”
“Look, we’ve been making good time on an empty highway,” he coaxed, trying a different tactic, one so foreign and rusty, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to pull it off. “Another four hours, five max and we’ll be in Casper before you know it. Now be a good girl, go to the bathroom and let’s get on down the road.”
“Sorry, big guy,” she said on a sigh. “No can do. I can’t see in the dark. Night blindness.”
Dusk was quickly turning to dark as Nick watched the play of emotions across her face. His stomach sank as he realized she was serious. “Can’t see?” he parroted. “Not even a little?”
“It’s a rod-cone thing. Supposedly I’m missing some of one or the other. Anyway, unless I can feel my way, I don’t do anything at night.”
Nick wasn’t sure how to respond to that comment, so he wisely chose silence.
In my upcoming “Heart of San Francisco” series, one of my editor’s favorite characters was the distinguished elderly and near deaf/blind butler named Hadley, whose quirk of selective hearing/seeing adds an extra bit of quirky humor to the story. Especially when our dear, old boy butts heads with the prickly housekeeper/cook, Rosie Fitzsimmons, as indicated in the two following clips.
“Hadley!” Rosie poked her head out the kitchen door. “I need you to snap the peas, lickety split.”
The butler clicked his heels. “Yes, miss, tap the bees—honey coming right up.”
“Peas!” Rosie screamed.
The front door opened and Hadley stepped through with a newspaper under his arm, distinguished as always in his crisp white shirt with black tails despite the sprig of juniper in his hair. A smile played at the corners of Caitlyn’s mouth as she stared at her beloved butler, his craggy face especially handsome with the absence of his new glasses. “The paperboy missed again?” she asked loudly enough for him to hear, plucking the juniper from his silver hair.
“I’m afraid so, miss,” Hadley said with his usual calm, a smile shadowing lips that never voiced a complaint. “I do believe the young ruffian relishes the thought of me rifling through the brush each morning. But I don’t mind. Rather like a trek through the jungle, if you will.”
She stood on tiptoe to graze an affectionate kiss to the old butler’s cheek. “Perhaps because you’ve misplaced your glasses again, Mr. Hadley?”
His eyes actually sparkled. “At times I find life to be more of an adventure without them, miss,” he said with an imp of a smile, “especially where Mrs. FitzSimmons is concerned.”
Caitlyn chuckled. “I do believe there’s a scamp beneath that regal pose, dear Hadley.”
He smiled. “With Mrs. Fitz, miss, one finds his pleasure wherever he can.”
3.) Quirks Can Humanize or Soften Hard-to-like Characters or Antagonists. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to take a character people loved to hate like the manipulative vixen sister in the “Daughters of Boston” series, Charity O’Connor, and use her quirks of manipulation to soften or humanize her. I mean this was the character that readers actually wrote and asked me to “slap Charity for them” or wanted to see her “maimed” or “killed” in book 1, A Passion Most Pure. But hopefully those same quirks of manipulation brought a smile to a reader’s face in the next book, A Passion Redeemed, when Charity lies in wait in the back seat of Mitch Dennehy’s car while he's on a date or when she put cracker crumbs in her eyes to manipulate him with tears. Throughout the rest of the series, this quirk of manipulation adds humor and softness to her when she becomes the family matchmaker and schemer such as in this clip from A Passion Denied:
“You want me to kiss Brady?” Lizzie’s voice was little more than a squeak.
“Only as a last resort if he doesn’t kiss you. Call it Plan B.”
“But, how …?”
Charity studied her sister, her lips skewed in thought. “Well, it would certainly help if you could cry. Can you cry on demand?”
Lizzie blinked. “I’ve never tried. But why do I have to cry?”
“Because it weakens their defenses. I suggest you practice in your room. If you have trouble, try putting something irritating in your eyes like a cracker crumb or anything like that. Once your eyes begin to water, just think about how much you love Brady and how awful it would be if he didn’t love you back. Then, voila! Cry yourself a river.”
4.) Quirks Can Add Drama and Mystery. One of the things I remember most about Mr. Darcy in the latest movie version of Pride and Prejudice is how he would flex his hand when he was fighting nervousness, a quirk that neatly showed he was human despite his arrogant air. Or in Tamera Alexander’s novel, Within My Heart, where the hero, Rand Brookston, Timber Ridge's physician, purchases huge amounts of lamp oil and nobody knows why until later in the book, when it reveals a deep secret and inner failing.
In the following clip from Mary Connealy’s, Over the Edge, the hero Seth got married after the war, but because of his injuries, he doesn’t remember. However, the feel of his wife Callie's hair is a memory for him, so he likes to touch it and release it from its braid, which becomes a quirk of his. He keeps doing it and she keeps trying to stop him. When she finally lets go and allows him to touch her hair, we know she's learning to trust again such as in this clip:
He had a flash of a memory of her rubbing his back. Or no, maybe bandaging his back. He was lying on his stomach and he looked back to see her touching him, leaning over him. He felt her silky hair spilling onto his back. Loose. Surely a nurse kept her hair tied back. And she smiled. He knew the moment was a true memory and not some kind of dream. And the way she touched him, the intimate way she smiled, this had to be after they were married. It sure better have been, considering where the memory took his thoughts. Oh, he could well imagine wanting to marry her bad.
5.) Quirks Can Humanize our Heroes/Heroines. Tina Radcliffe’s heroine in Oklahoma Reunion, Kait Field, cleans when she is stressed and she's stressed a lot, a quirk that helps lighten an otherwise negative habit in a character, making Kait both relatable and endearing, such as in this excerpt where she and her daughter go to have dinner at the hero, Ryan Jones' house.
Kait turned and inspected the kitchen in stunned surprise. The entire room from the granite countertops, white bead board cupboards to the checkerboard floor tiles gleamed. “What happened? Everything is so, so...”
Ryan shrugged, and shot her a lopsided grin.
“I think you might possibly be cleaner than me.”
“Hey, let’s not get carried away. No one is cleaner than you, Kait.”
Throughout the O’Connor saga, Collin McGuire is a drop-dead gorgeous hero who’s lousy at sports, and his brothers-in-law never let him forget it, which helps humanize his exalted hero status, as indicated in these two clips from A Hope Undaunted and A Love Surrendered.
With a hint of a smile, Sean scratched the back of his head and closed his eyes. “As a matter of fact, Collin told me once that the only reason Father agreed to let him come courting in the first place was because of Mother. Apparently she convinced him that at one time, he’d been just like Collin.”
A smirk lifted Steven’s brow. “You mean lousy at sports?”
Steven cleared his throat. “For you information, sis, unlike Collin, I win by skill.” He flicked a stray crumb of pie at his sister.
“Hey—so my wide range of talents doesn’t include Pinochle,” Collin defended.
“Or basketball, or baseball or chess …” Luke said with a grin.
6.) Quirks Can Deepen a Character by Revealing Hurts in a Character’s Life. In MaryLu Tyndall’s book, Surrender the Dawn, the hero Luke is always rubbing his earlobe when he feels guilty. Why? According to MaryLu, it’s because he injured it while trying to rescue his parents from a burning building, an attempt at which he failed, thus reminding the reader of his painful past and invoking an empathy with a simple quirk like rubbing his ear.
Or in my novel, A Hope Undaunted, the heroine Katie O’Connor rubs her elbows when she’s insecure, harkening back to a time in her past when she was ridiculed by classmates for having psoriasis on her legs, arms and elbows.
SO … how do I come up with quirks to enhance my novels? Well, at the end of this blog, you’ll find a list of all the quirks I was able to find on line and some I thought of myself, so have at it. BUT ... A WORD OF WARNING ABOUT ALL QUIRKS: Quirks are the easiest things to overdo in a book, so PLEASE use them sparingly. For instance in the case of an accent, I tend to avoid accents at all cost because A.) they're difficult to do correctly and convincingly and B.) they can grate on the reader's (and the writer's!) nerves. That's why the ONLY Irish word quirk you hear Patrick O'Connor say in my books is "darlin'," and even that I have to tone down at times to avoid overkill. Same thing with Marcy's glazing her teeth with her tongue—I will literally take out half of these or more in the editing stage. But that warning said, here are a few easy ways you can brainstorm new and clever quirks to endear your characters to your readers.
HOW TO COME UP WITH CREATIVE QUIRKS FOR YOUR CHARACTERS:
1.) Think about Self Characteristics. Boy, was this fun—you should try it!! I actually did it and came up with the following quirks that I personally have, which I may just give to a character or two! I actually used the first one already—liking underdone or light pastries and breads because in A Passion Redeemed, Charity always switches her dark roll for Mitch or Brady’s light ones when they’re not looking.
o Only eat light or undercooked pastries and breads
o Only like to eat blue M&Ms and will NOT eat brown ones.
o Always roll or push up the sleeves of blouses and sweaters
o Have to write with a black pen, not blue
o Pick at my eyebrows
o Wear lipstick/gloss at ALL times … even to bed
o Half sing songs and hum parts when don’t know the words, driving my daughter CRAZY!!
o Must have coffee, ear plugs, lipstick, Kleenex, mirror, notebook, emory board when writing
o Hoard Christmas bows
o Keep one foot out of bed at night when hot
o Tent my knees when sleeping
o Save plastic bags, twisty ties and bows
o Kick my legs when sitting
o Twist the paper covers that straw come in
o Doodle flowers and faces when on phone
o Eat only soft or soggy fries
o Must have four ketchup, salt & pepper, two creamers, knife and one strawberry jelly with my Egg McMuffin meals
2.) Think about Characteristics of Family Members. My Dad was a bit quirky in that although he was an eye surgeon of considerable repute and skill, he would do things like throw string over the telephone wire outside his bedroom window to see which way the wind was blowing! Also, my mom used to glaze her tongue across her teeth when she was nervous, so I gave that same trait to Marcy O’Connor in my O’Connor family series. My hubby went through a phase where he loved Snickers, so I gave Sean O’Connor an obsession with Snickers bars.
3.) Think about Characteristics of Friends, Classmates, Coworkers. A friend of mine used to wrinkle her nose like a rabbit out of nervous habit and another dear friend loved Dr. Pepper so much, she chose “Dr. Pepper Girl” as her e-mail addy. As a result, my heroine in my next book, A Love Surrendered, also has an addiction to Dr. Pepper and her friend calls her, "Dr. Pepper Girl."
4.) Think about Opposites. In book 2 of the “Heart of San Francisco” series, my alpha-male hero is a fearless and armed rough-and-tumble Italian police detective who, like Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS, is not afraid of anybody or anything. You know the type—rock jaw, perennial shadow of beard and gruff manner? Well, our hero is railroaded into providing protection for the heroine whom he perceives as a spoiled socialite, forced to escort her home everyday on a cable car. The quirk I gave him? He has a fear of throwing up (I actually had a friend with this quirk, believe it or not) and unfortunately cable cars turn my hero green and sick to his stomach, which I hope will provide moments of humor as well as humanize our grouchy cop.
5.) Character Trait Chart and Personality Components. WOW, I found this fun website called Inspiration for Writers, Inc., of which an author friend of mine, Sandi Rog, is a part. They offer a GREAT Personality Components Chart here for free that can help you brainstorm quirks and character traits. For example, I took two of the words in the Personality Components Chart—“aloof” and “meticulous” and immediately came up with quirks of two people I know. One of them absolutely HATES to be hugged (aloof), which if you know me at all, is a real challenge to NOT hug her when I see her! The other friend is insanely organized, color coding everything with markers and lists (meticulous), so this chart really helps shake loose the ideas for character quirks. Here’s the link for a free Character Trait Chart AND Personality Components Chart, plus you can request free copies of their writer’s worksheets as well, so check it out!
Finally, here’s the list of quirks I came up, some of which you may just see in my future books, so beware!! And anyone who leaves a comment today or mentions new quirks to be added will be entered to win a signed copy of any of my books including ANY future books. So let’s get “quirky and remember … quirky characters need love too!
LIST OF QUIRKS:
Adjusts eyeglasses, tie, belt, skirt
Allergic to something
Bad with names; gets names mixed up
Can't stand the sight of blood
Chews on a pen
Chews sunflower seeds
Constantly plays with a ball
Debates all issues
Dramatic/Interesting scar on (face/part of body)
Unusual mole or birth mark (shaped like....)
Excessively grooms self
Unusual mole or birth mark (shaped like....)
Excessively grooms self
Drinks too much coffee (in honor of Gibbs)
Drops clothes on floor
Feet on desk
Finishes people’s sentences
Flips a coin
Hands in pockets
Hates ice in drinks
Hates to lose
Hoarse/gravelly voice from smoking, shouting, Chews on hair
Honest to a fault
Lisp on certain words
Makes bets on everything
No fashion sense
Pencil over ear
Pet phrase or word
Picks up strays
Pinches bridge of nose
Plays with lobe of ear
Poor sense of direction
Rattles change in pocket
Runs hands through his hair
Shuffles when walks
Speaks in rhymes
Talk about self in third person
Talks to him/herself
Tic in jaw/cheek/temple when angry
Tidies up wherever
Whistles out of tune or same lines over and over
Won’t eat anything green
Won’t eat vegetables