I’m rereading a book where one of the main characters is an editor who mentally parses interesting words in her thoughts. E.g. while struggling with the onerous task of clearing her basement she thinks “Latin: onerosus, meaning ‘burden”.” This mental editing is a character quirk that has nothing do to with moving the plot forward, but it makes the character interesting and unusual, and keeps this reader turning pages.
Many authors use quirks in character building —
- Colin Dexter’s Morse solves the Times crossword in record quick time.
- Miss Marple knits and eavesdrops
- Abby on NCIS covered in tattoos and piercings, looks scary but is kind and loving.
In science, trait refers to a characteristic that is caused by genetics, e.g. blue eyes. A quirk is defined as a peculiarity of behaviour, a mannerism. In the old TV show “Monk” the main character suffered from OCD. I’m sure living with that condition is very hard, but in the show Monk’s obsessive straightening and tidying and germaphobia is entertaining. In the British show, “Professor T,” the main character has a similar quirk.
Habit, mannerism, trait, quirk, foible, idiosyncrasy . . . all mean more or less the same thing, but the consistent definition for “quirk” in different dictionaries is that the characteristic is strange, weird, peculiar or unexpected. Whatever you call that odd thing your character does, the weirder you make it, the better when it comes to keeping your readers engaged.
I think the trick to writing quirky characters is to keep the behaviours off-beat. A quick search of the internet turned up a list of 500 character quirks. Among the things listed are computer nerd, pacing when thinking, chewing fingernails, chewing gum . . . In my opinion, these habits aren’t weird enough to qualify as quirks.
The quirk must be unique and unexpected. The first time I saw a movie where a daring-do hero was afraid of clowns I was delighted. Since then, I’ve seen that meme overused and it has lost its power. Now, whenever a clown comes on screen, I expect the cop/fireman/soldier to fear it.
So, what would be some fun quirks to incorporate into a romance? Perhaps the heroine never meets a man without visualizing him as her groom. If he’s “the one,” we go directly to HEA. If he’s not “the one” the way in which the vision dissolves could be fun. e.g. he melts, or he grows a monkey tail and swings through the trees, or he explodes and destroys the wedding chapel.
In the old television show, Remington Steele, the title character solved mysteries by relating them to old movies. I found that quirk memorable and it heightened the dissonance between him and his lady boss, who was a trained detective. In that case, the quirk served to make the character unique and added to the romantic tension of the story.
In my book, The Man for Her, Lottie’s hatred of the search for gold could be described as a quirk, but I’d be more inclined to call it a learned characteristic since it comes from experience and, therefore, not that unexpected. Still, for a story set in the gold rush, having a heroine who hates gold is a bit quirky.
Not every book will have a quirky character. If they did the quirks would quickly become stale and boring. Still, if you can incorporate a little oddity into one of your characters, readers will remember.
Please share your favourite quirky characters in the comments below.