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