Monday, September 27, 2010

Quirk Ten

Ten Things to Give Your Characters More Character

Birthday: Unless circumstances prevent it, decide on a date of birth for your character. Research his or her respective astrological sign, any famous people born on or historic events that occurred on the same day, and incorporate into your characterization some aspects that fit well and appeal to you. Create one event that is significant to the character that happened on one of their birthdays.

Collection: Almost everyone in real life collects something, so why not choose a collectible item tailored to your character's personality? Or give your character a hobby that creates a collection of handmade items. Decide how your character feels about their collection, how the collection reflects an aspect of their personality, and work it into the story accordingly.

Fan Items: This is a sub-class of the collectible, only something that is definitely from the realm of RL fandom. For modern novels, think about big fandom trends (Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, etc.) If you're writing a story set in a historic period, check out what forms of fandom there were in that time. A character who wears a Frak Me T-shirt makes a certain statement about themselves as well as their love for Battlestar Galactica. So does a character who collects death masks of famous Victorian poets.

Habit: Characters who have habits often reveal through them interesting personality quirks. These can be simple rituals, superstitions or largely unconscious repetitive behaviors, such as always checking all the doors and windows before going to bed, avoiding walking under a ladder or tapping a foot when they're feeling impatient. Think about your character's daily routine, and see where a habit might logically form.

Journal: I don't know many girls who didn't keep a diary when they were teens, and certainly plenty of adults of both genders keep personal journals. Characters who aren't the writer type often chronicle their lives in other ways, such as with home videos, photo albums or saved letters.

Library: I love books where I get to see what a character likes to read. You don't have to set up an in-house library, either; maybe toss a couple paperbacks on the nightstand. Who and what your character reads always says a lot about them to your reader, especially if they've read the same books.

Lucky Charm: Not every character is superstitious enough to hook a rabbit's foot on their key ring, but most of us have little good luck charms (I carry a pair of engraved stones in my pocket, and have another pair in my car.) A lucky charm can be a habit or ritual as well as a physical object.

Music: What sort of music does your character listen to? Do they hum along with the radio while driving, or sing in the shower? If you choose a type of music for your character that you don't listen to personally, check out some albums, read up on what fans of the music have to say about it, and create a musical persona based on your research.

Pet: Unless your character has allergies or is living under circumstances that don't allow pet ownership, incorporating a pet into the story helps the reader know more about your character through their need or desire for animal companionship. It's also fun to decide if your character is a dog, cat or other type pet owner and then give them a companion with their own personality quirks.

Vehicle: What sort of car does your character drive, and why? Are they sporty, sedanish or truck-minded? Did they settle for what they could afford, or save up to get the car they really wanted? What is your character's attitude toward their vehicle? What's in the back seat, the trunk, the glove compartment? For extra realism (if possible) see if you can arrange to borrow or test-drive the same vehicle your character owns, or get some insight from someone who has a RL version of it.


  1. I love this list.

    May I ask, though, what's the legal aspect of a character haviving a (say) Harry Potter book on his nightstand? Can we title it without asking permission. My MC once made a Harry Potter diorama in his book shop window and my editor nearly had a heart attack. I had to remove both it and his Hufflepuff coffee mug.

  2. Great post, Lynn! These are the kinds of things that breathe life into characters.

  3. Rachel, Harry Potter is not only copyright-protected but also trademark protected, which takes it beyond what we consider fair use. Theoretically it is permissable to refer to the Harry Potter trademark in a story, and I'll quote from the International Trademark Association's guidelines regarding trademark use:

    "It is permissible to use another company’s trademark when referring to that company’s product in text, where it is being used to truthfully refer to that a product or service affiliated with that trademark. It may not be used in a way that might mislead others as to that company’s affiliation, sponsorship or endorsement of your company, products or services, e.g., using a logo instead of simply the text form of a trademark, or using the trademark more prominently or frequently than necessary."

    The editor probably objected to the material included in your MC's book because J.K. Rowling and her publisher famously sued the publisher of a fan encyclopedia for unauthorized use of her fiction. Also, if J.K. Rowling objected to the use, she could sue (I kind of doubt a judge would award her damages for the use of a diorama and a coffee mug in the story, but you never know.)

    One last thought -- everything I'm talking about here applies to U.S. law; laws regarding fair use, copyright infringement and trademark use may be different in the UK.

  4. Thanks Lynn. Bottom line is to steer clear of naming brands I think. I'd rather say 'space figures' than 'Star Wars' figures.

  5. Hard for me to say which was more interesting, the character list in the post, or the discussion of copyright infringement in the comments.

    VERY, VERY helpful list. I'm going to use this as I work on my novel revisions. Thank you so much!

  6. Anonymous9:14 AM

    I am SO glad you are back!


  7. I always feel a sort of kinship with anyone who uses the word Frak.

  8. Thanks for this. I've been working on my MC in this latest revision and I'm sure this will help bring her closer into focus.

  9. I did have a character (in Beauty of Sunset)who collected glass dildoes as taken from the original casts done by the Plaster Casters of famous rock stars! Does that count?

  10. Regarding the car thing, I once walked into a car dealership and feigned interest in the (way too expensive for me) sports car one of my characters drives. I think not flinching when the salesman named the price was my best bit of acting. I do feel a bit sorry for leading the salesman on, but the car dealership was empty at the time and I wasn't taking away time from actual customers.

    It worked, too. I got a test drive and
    brochures of the car with extensive photos of all sorts of details, which came in very useful with questions like "Is it possible for someone in the driver's seat to break down crying and bury his head in the lap on the person in the passenger seat without getting the gear shift rammed into his body?"

    I've also made fish and chips from scratch to get into the skin of a character who works in a fish and chip shop.

    The collection thing can be a bit tricky though. I've ended up with the Hot Wheels cars and Transformer toys my character collects (I don't even like Transformers), I own several pieces of jewelery (nothing expensive, mainly costume jewelery) that actually belong to my characters and my music collection includes some examples of music my characters love, though I don't.

    At least I didn't buy the car.

  11. Great post, Lynn. It really made me think about my current MC and what lies beneath the surface. I think I hit most of the items on your list, but I have no idea what her birthday is. I'll have to think about it, and if this works into a series like I want, I'll definitely use it to deepen her character. Thanks. =o)

  12. Thanks for the tips : )

  13. I'm telling Helder, a writer, that he has to read you every single day (for columns like this) and then realized I'm not following my own advice. Bad.

  14. Re: Using named brands in fiction

    If you are going to do it make it important to the character and a touch stone for the reader. If Rowking is going to sue you over the idea that she is a cultural touchstone in modern society then you get free publicity out of it.

    It is like being a Coke, Pepsi or Dr Pepper drinker, or only driving Chevys or Fords. The important part is that your character has a reason.


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