Quirking Your Characters

Every writer wants—or should want—to create characters who are vivid, interesting, and memorable. My advice is to choose a quirky interest that will allow you to illuminate various aspects of your character’s character.

Take turtles, for example. You’ll recall from my blog posts on August 15 and August 22, I have an affinity for Eastern box turtles. I enjoy them in situ. When I discovered the male turtle I’d encountered periodically over the past few years in the middle of the cul de sac in front of my house, smooshed by a car, I went into a funk. Two days later, I found a baby turtle—about the size of a fifty-cent coin, so new its shell was still flexible—I felt both joy and concern. I picked it up from the sidewalk and released it on the bank behind my house. The next day, I saw a baby turtle smooshed in a driveway across the street. I cried. Was it “my” turtle or a clutch mate? Should I have moved it from the sidewalk to grass closer to where it might have been trying to go? More recently, I found this male turtle on the bank behind my house— younger, I think, than the one that died. Suddenly, the world looked brighter again.

male eastern box turtle

Consider a fictional character with a turtle interest, then answer a few questions. Is it a house turtle or turtles in the wild? What might either answer reveal about your character? Much can be gleaned from how a person interacts with a pet. We’re more familiar with dogs and cats, maybe birds; how might interacting with a turtle be similar and different? Where did the interest in turtles come from?

Does the turtle hold some symbolic importance for your character? Turtle symbolism includes order, creation, patience, strength, stability, longevity, innocence, endurance, and protection.

Does the turtle interest originate in cultural or ethnic roots? The symbolism of turtles varies widely around the world, so do a little research depending on the ethnic heritage of your character: Africa, Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, ancient Rome, Malaysia, China, India, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, North America, South America, Tahiti, Polynesia.

Or maybe it’s an interest in turtles in specific venues: folklore, literature, children’s books, films and television, even video games. If you want to get really esoteric, make it an interest in turtles on old coins, flags, or heraldry.

Much as I favor turtles, they are not the only rich way to quirk your character. My favorite all-purpose symbolism reference—animals, dates, numbers, plants, etc.—is The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols book cover

Sometimes a more specialized examination of symbols is appropriate.

The Language of Flowers book cover  Leaves in Myth, Magic, and Medicine book cover

I once wrote a short story titled “Speak to Me” in which the main character is a woman who carves grave stones and communicates with her anonymous lover through the symbols of flowers and funerary art. (This story appeared in Apalachee Review, Number 56, 2006, and is reprinted in the Different Drummer collection.)

Big take-away for writers

Get beyond fiddling with hair or popping gum and choose a rich quirk for your character. If it’s a novel, you are going to be spending a lot of time together, and if you aren’t interested, neither will your reader be!

More on Characters

What’s in a Character Name?

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters: Guest Post on Thrill Writers

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen

Writers on Writing

You may recall that in one of my previous blogs, I mentioned talking with writers about writing as one of the best things about a writing workshop at Nimrod. Although not as interactive, there are lots of ways to get inside writers’ heads.

A writing friend sent me this link to a New York Times opinion piece by Stephen King on the question of whether a novelist can be too productive.

His short answer is that how much you write (publish) isn’t a reflection of how well you write. But there are many paragraphs of well-crafted opinion that are well worth reading. Of course, you already know that Stephen King wrote one of my favorite books on writing.

On Writing by Stephen King book cover
Stephen King’s On Writing

On Saturday, August 29, NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Ursula Le Guin on Weekend Edition. Among other things, she talked about the effect of aging on her writing. She is 85. It’s well worth a listen.

If you are a magazine person, there are many places to get insights about and from writers. Two of the most popular are Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest.

Poets & Writers and Writer's Digest
Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest

If you are more of a book person, especially if you are focused on mystery writing, you might consider Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. (You can also read “Mystery Writing” Lessons on her website.) Or these.

Writing Mysteries edited by Sue Grafton book covers
Writing Mysteries edited by Sue Grafton

There are many books by writers about writing, both classic and modern.

classic and modern books on writing
The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer, Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

One of my favorite bits is one of Elmore Leonard‘s rules: Leave out the parts the reader is going to skip anyway. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Related Posts

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen

Food and Fiction

What’s in a Character Name?

Dictionary of American Regional English

Writing Life: Exercise Improves Creativity

Psychology For Writers series

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters: Guest Post on Thrill Writers

UCI Road World Championships: Long-term Effects of Bicycles in Women’s Lives.

UCI Road World Championships are over and congratulations are due to all cyclists, especially Chloe Dygert and Emma White, two US cyclists who came in first and second in the women’s junior road race. Dygert and White were also 1 & 2 in the women’s junior time trial. It made me reflect again on the long-term effects of bicycles in women’s lives.

On September 17, I posted this picture on my Facebook page and mentioned that some suffragists called bicycles Freedom Machines because of all they opened up in the lives of 19th century women. I’ve been thinking about bicycles a lot this past week, and it seems this is a topic worth revisiting after the close of race week.
cloth doll on child's bike
Male domination of cycling ended as a result of the introduction of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. The safety bicycle had smaller wheels, a lower seat, a diamond frame and (soon) pneumatic tires. In 1896, Margaret Valentine Le Long garnered fame (if not fortune) by riding a safety bicycle from Chicago to San Francisco.
A 1889 Lady’s safety bicycle.
A 1889 Lady’s safety bicycle. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
Not all women cycled for feminist reasons. Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, some cycled in order to expand Victorian moral and aesthetic tastes and sentiments into the public arena. These women cycled to feminize, domesticate, and civilize public spaces they considered masculine, loud, and rowdy.
Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsk was the first woman to bicycle around the world. “Annielondonderry” by Unknown – http://www.annielondonderry.com. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia.


But regardless of why women took up cycling, the bicycle took them out of the home and into an expanded world. In addition, practical dress for women cyclists (in addition to eliminating corsets) resulted in divided skirts, bloomers, and knickerbockers. It was practical, facilitating more comfortable riding. But at the same time, it was symbolic in breaking from the dominant norms of appropriate female dress and behavior. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Bicycle suit punch 1895
Bicycle suit, 1895. By http://www.victorianweb.org/periodicals/punch/15.html [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frances Willard, suffragist and founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was one of the most famous women of her day with a mass following of independent-minded, often politically active women. At the age of 53 Willard determined to learn to ride a bicycle because she “wanted to help women to a wider world…from natural love of adventure—a love long hampered and impeded…[and] from a love of acquiring this new implement of power and literally putting it underfoot.” Her book, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, was published in 1895. Bicycling magazine called it “the greatest book ever written on learning to ride.”
Frances Willard
Frances Willard by English: photo taken before 1898, author not known, Image edited Deutsch: Urheber unbekannt; Das Bild wurde vor 1898 aufgenommen; Bild wurde später (am oder vor dem 30.12.2009) nachbearbeitet. (http://memory.loc.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In his novel trilogy The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy had this to say about cycling: “Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperones, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would have come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have bloomed week-end, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation—in four words, the emancipation of woman.” (Quoted in Dave Horton’s “Social Movements and the Bicycle.”)
 bicycle painted in rainbow colors as art
Some authorities warned against excessive cycling by women, girls, and middled-aged men. Also of concern in the 1890s was the possibility that bike riding might be sexually stimulating for women—which resulted in remodeled “hygienic” seats, high stems, and upright  handlebars that reduced the angle at which women would ride.  Even so, through cycling, doctors discovered that exercise is healthful—even for women! The bicycle caused the death of the corset and “straight laced” women, leaving only “loose” women. (FYI: during the Civil War, “loose women” were also known as “soiled doves.”)
Ashland bike art, bike with birds
Willard named her bicycle Gladys, for the “gladdening effect” it had on her health and political optimism.The overall message of her book presented mastery of the bicycle as a metaphor for women’s mastery over their own lives.
bicycle art: yellow bike with sun
bike with flowers
So, that’s all ancient history, right? None of this really speaks to women today, right? Unless you are Rosemary Shomaker—or one of the platoons of other women whose experiences still resonate with those of our foremothers. Rosemary posted on my Facebook page: “In the 1970s the bicycle was definitely a ‘freedom machine’ for one girl escaping a less-than-fabulous home life—me! I rode my bike everywhere. To softball and field hockey practices ad gaes. To my part-time job. To friends and boyfriends; houses. To Wolf Trap Farm Park. Along the W&OD bike path. To parks. To tennis courts. Early bike riding shaped my still uber-independent spirit. Go Richmond 2-15 UCI Road World Championships! Best wishes from a bike lover.”
mannequin on bike
I was never a bike-for-pleasure person. But bike as transportation was a big deal. It allowed me to ride from my house a few miles along a county road to visit with my cousins. My sister and I shared that bike. When I got my first car at 16, my dear sister got sole possession of that dear bike.

Go, girls! Go!
girls' bikes