Once upon a time I found myself with a lot of time to fill (where did those days go?) and having dropped out of university years earlier I decided to get a bachelors degree with the Open University. I was essentially studying for fun so I chose a subject that was fun for me; I chose Literature. I did two creative writing modules as part of that degree, writing short stories, character vignettes and poetry, etc. and then getting feedback from fellow students. I wrote a short story for one of the assignments – and here I should add that short stories have never been my forte – and I got some of the most flattering feedback I could’ve hoped for. As well as lots of very valid criticisms my peers told me that I breathed life into my main character. I spent a lot of time figuring out how I did it and eventually realised it was all about the details.
Think about yourself for a moment, what is it that makes you so unique? As individuals we are defined by all sorts of things: age, gender, relationships to others, work, where we live, what car we drive or even whether we drive at all… and so the list goes on. All those definitions are important but we share them with many other people. The statement “I am a woman” puts me in the company of around 3.52 billion other people. If I said “I live in Greater Manchester” I can narrow that to 2.8 million people. That’s still a whole bunch. When I think about my friends and family and try to identify the things that set them apart, it’s not their job or age or gender that stands out, although those things will help you understand them, it’s their quirks and mannerisms and all the stupid little habits that they’ve picked up from their friends and family.
I’ll give you an example.
I once worked with a lovely lady who would do anything for you, chat to anyone and was always as helpful as possible. She was tall, had frizzy hair that she was desperate to straighten and had fashion sense that might often be best described as quirky. What is most memorable, however, is that when she offered to make tea and coffee for our team, which was often, accepting was like playing tea-break Roulette. Not only did the combinations of tea and coffee and milk and sugar vary, even the strength of the drink was unpredictable and sometimes, even though you asked for coffee you might get tea, and when you’d always taken it black you’d get milk. She was a charming colleague and no matter what else I forget, I will always remember her ability to mess up my coffee.
In the short story that I mentioned near the start of this post, what really brought my character to life was that she wore a particular type of trainer (sneaker for our North American friends) and that when sitting in an auditorium she was swinging her feet and kicking the chair in front. When asked to stop she did it even more. It was this very simple little behaviour that made my readers say “Yes! Now I know this girl” and she instantly memorable to them.
The irony here is, of course, that this isn’t unique behaviour – there are probably millions of teenagers and kids that do this, including the one that inspired it in the first place by subjecting me to the same treatment through an entire flight – but it was unique in my story. In fact, it helped that it was a recognisable habit because readers could relate to it. They knew kids that did similar things and it brought the character to life as a result.
Whatever story you’re working on, if your characters all walk the same and talk the same it won’t matter that one has dark hair or blonde hair, is tall or short, or wears a particular outfit, because your reader will struggle to keep them separate and they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. The first step is to recognise unusual habits and mannerisms in the people around you, the next is to chose the ones that your audience can recognise and relate to. Sometimes it is the smallest quirk that makes a character leap from the page.
What amazing quirks do the people you know have? What are the identifying mannerisms of your favourite TV, movie or book characters?