by Ashley Lister
One of the main reasons we read is to meet new and exciting characters who are doing new and exciting things. Whether it’s a Christian Grey, a Jane Eyre or Winnie the Pooh, we want to meet these novel individuals who have been brought to life through fiction.
There are several ways to make fictional characters come to life from the page, many of which I discuss in my book, How to WriteShort Stories and Get Them Published. However, one of the main ways to create a character, a character that lives beyond the page, is to make them quirky. Quirky characters stay in the minds of our readers. Quirky character traits, because they’re so unusual, give the reader a sense of realism when they notice they’re reading about someone with unconventional behaviour that they have seen in the real world.
Violet Baudelaire, in Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket stories, has a trait of tying back her long hair into a ponytail whenever she is trying to address a particularly difficult problem. Given the way the Lemony Snicket stories are constructed, Violet has to face many difficult problems and spends a lot of her time tying her hair back. It’s a quirk that makes her seem more than a mere fictional character.
The character of Orr, in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, is quirky enough to stuff crab apples into his cheeks so that they bulge. When this is first introduced to the reader it is seen as something vaguely ridiculous that fits in with the surreal attitude Heller has taken to armed conflict. It is only later in the novel that the reader understands this quirk is a key part of Orr’s story.
Windsor Horne Lockwood III in Harlen Coben’s Myron Bolitar novels is another character with quirks that make him believable. He is wealthy and comes from a moneyed background and, whenever he’s engaged in an important conversation, he steeples his fingers whilst concentrating. It’s a subtle detail: but it gives you a clear impression of a character who, when he’s not playing gold with hedge fund managers, or negotiating deals with investment bankers, is saving Myron’s life like some dark and twisted superhero.
As I’ve said before, the advice offered here is NOT intended to be seen as altruistic behaviour on my part. I’ve written a book, How to Write Short Stories and Get Them Published and, if you’re interested in writing short fiction, I’d dearly love you to buy a copy. The book is based on knowledge and experience I’ve accrued from fifteen years of teaching creative writing, and from twenty-five years of being a published author, and from the research I conducted whilst acquiring my PhD in creative writing. If you want to write short fiction, I want you to buy a copy of the book.
To create a character with quirky traits, it works better if the quirk comes naturally into the creation of the character rather than being something placed there artificially. We can believe in an ex-smoker who stares wistfully at people shivering in smoking shelters: it’s a relatable response. We can empathise with the genius practical-mined scientist who has a four-leafed clover on his desk because it shows a duality between the known and the unknown world. But, a character who simply wants to wear a hat made out of blu-tack, is neither relatable nor deserving of our empathy. This sort of detail is simply quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness.
Quirkiness can be shown through a character’s favourite, overused, word. Quirkiness can be an interest in rare flowers that seems uncommon for a character who was once the most efficient member of a crack military unit. Quirkiness can even be the Mickey Mouse wristwatch, worn by the eminent Harvard Professor Robert Langdon, in Dan Brown’s novels.
Character quirkiness does make characters seem more real and less like the result of reading two dimensional letters from a flat page. When it’s done properly, quirkiness can make your characters live long in the memory of your readers and well-remembered characters are the goal of every writer.
Please remember, if you want even more useful advice on How to Write Short Stories and Get Them Published, don’t forget to order a copy of my book.