Geek confession: I used to play D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, for the uninitiated). In fact, I used to play another gaming system that rivaled D&D back in the day, a system designed by Steve Jackson called GURPS (which I believe stood for Generic Universal Role Playing System). It wasn’t nearly as complex or detailed as the D&D 4.0, for which my boys now spend hours memorizing rules and character info, but it had one really cool component that’s stuck with me over the years: Character Quirks.
In case you haven’t ever played a role playing game, you generally start by creating a character. In order for all players to have characters approximately equal in abilities, you usually have a specified number of points you can spend to buy different attributes—things like intelligence, charisma, dexterity, and strength. You use these different attributes to determine what you can or can’t do during the course of the game.
In the GURPS system, you could get extra character points to spend by choosing character quirks—character details that encourage you to role play more but don’t provide practical value; that is, a quirk would guide your reactions in a given scenario but would not increase your ability to climb a tree, pick a pocket, or fight a dragon. They were designed to help players create characters that were more fun to play.
I often think back on the GURPS list of character quirks when I’m thinking about the characters in my writing. Quirks can make characters more interesting, larger-than-life, real, or more sympathetic. I kinda wish I had my old GURPS books so I could refer to their list…but the truth is that I’ve created my own (ever-expanding) list of quirks that can round out characters. Here are a few of the categories I use. Feel free to add more in the comments!
Types of Character Quirks
- Addictions: These can range from minor/inconvenient (sugar, caffeine, diet soda) to major/life-changing (alcohol, drugs, cutting)—although to qualify as a character quirk, the addiction wouldn’t usually be the story focus. Think of it more as COLOR!
- Habits: This is a great quirk to collect in airports and coffee shops. Think of finger drumming, toe tapping, folding dollar bills into origami flowers, drawing spirals on one’s skin, compulsively creating rhymes, playing buzzword bingo, collecting odd bits of information…the possibilities are endless, each with different ramifications for the mood of story and character.
- Pets: Choice of pet can reveal a lot about character in very few words. Does your character choose a Great Dane too big for him to control? A particularly intelligent chinchilla? A snake, cool and withdrawn? What does she enjoy about the pet? How do they interact? Did she choose the pet or vice versa? Janet Evanovich’s immortal Stephanie Plum, a bail bondswoman with a knack for solving mysteries in the midst of relationship/hair/auto crises, has a pet hamster. He’s not a huge part of the story, but he gives her something to care about, someone to talk to when she’s alone in the house, someone to worry about when the villain invades her kitchen. It’s fantastic.
- Hobbies/interests/special knowledge: I think that, as writers, it’s easy to think of this category primarily in the context of the Brainy Kid stereotype. Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl), Cadel Piggott (Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius), and Hermione (Harry Potter) are all super-smart characters whose brains can save the day—but it can be even more powerful when a character who isn’t an obvious intellect cracks the code or dredges up the key information to solve a story problem. In My Cousin Vinny, the big-haired, gum-cracking, New Jersey native Mona Lisa Vito (SPOILER ALERT!) becomes the case-breaking witness for her automotive knowledge. It’s surprising and wonderful—and kids and adults alike relate more readily to the average character with a skill than the all-knowing genius.
- Background: The ever-important backstory generally plays an important role in story. Events before the opening page inform your character’s relationships, trust, belief system, skills, fears, and more, and often provide the foundation for both plot and theme. However, unusual background can also be just plain fun—like the fact that the main character in Carl Hiassen’s adult novel Skinny Dip (a terrific summer read) lost her parents in a plane accident that occurred because they were flying with a dancing bear that had had too much to drink.
- Disability: Like background, disability can provide quirky color or it can be the underpinnings of your entire story structure. In Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty, Freak, aka Kevin, has a birth defect that keeps him in braces and crutches, and this weakness what brings he and soon-to-be best friend Max together. In Skinny Dip, one of the characters has trouble sitting due to an old injury: he was shot in the butt. It’s a funny, quirky detail—that Hiassen uses in the unfolding plot to create surprise and character growth.
- Fear/wound: An old hurt or an ongoing fear may be founded in pre-story events, but will inform your characters actions and responses as the story moves forward. For instance, Matt Cruise (Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series) harbors the odd conviction that he can never fall, in part because he still struggles to come to terms with his father’s fall to his death—a wound from years before.
- Beliefs: One of my favorite quirky characters is elderly Mr. Fogarty in Herbie Brennan’s Faerie Wars. Mr. Fogarty defends his house with a baseball bat, is a firm believer in most conspiracy theories, and was probably abducted by aliens, although I don’t believe that detail is every specified. He’s also the main character’s best friend, sympathetic (in a super-weird, super-cranky kind of way), and very, very, very quirky—all because he has some truly odd beliefs.
- Unusual gift or skill: What do The Mysterious Benedict Society, Savvy, and Harry Potter have in common? They all feature kids with special abilities. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovers that he has a gift for magic; in the later books, the gift becomes the tool he uses to solve challenges and defeat his enemies. In Savvy, magic is an everyday part of life for Mibs Beaumont—she just doesn’t know what her particular gift will be, and its discovery becomes one of the book’s themes. The kids in The Mysterious Benedict Society have non-magical gifts that remind me of Howard Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences theory—mechanical genius, a photographic memory, and an astonishing gift for stubbornness. An unusual skill can help your character get out of sticky situations or provide problems for them to unravel—while making them more intriguing to your readers.
- Crazy friends/relatives: Need I say more? The crazy friend you love to hate—the crazy relative you need to escape—the wacky neighbor who adds zest to the story—wherever you can add the spice of the unusual, do. It will make your readers keep turning pages…and isn’t that what it’s all about?
A “quirk” is a great way to round out a character with the sort of memorable detail that will help them jump off the page into your readers’ arms. Or heads, as the case may be.
Any favorite examples of quirky characters? Please share!