Written by JJ Barnes
Your characters need to represent a real to life experience of being around people. Characters that read as artificial will stop your audience from connecting with them. If they can’t connect with them, they’ll care less about the story they’re on and be less willing to finish your book or film. A really good way of making sure your characters feel real to your readers is to give the personality quirks.
What Are Personality Quirks?
Personality quirks are little individual behaviours and mannerisms that specific characters have. It could be something subtle such as picking at their nails when they’re nervous, or playing with a piece of jewellery when they’re thinking. Alternatively you could give them a personality quirk of swearing too much or laughing really loudly.
Personality quirks are little things that differentiate one person from another. Something that makes them unique. A behaviour that, when you read it on the page, you can immediately identify which character it is.
Why Are Personality Quirks Useful In Stories?
There are a number of reasons you could find personality quirks useful when you’re writing your story.
Personality quirks create distinct characterisation. The larger your cast of characters is, the easier it will be for them to blend into one another. You need your audience to be able to recognise who each person is quickly so they need to be written distinctly. This is especially true if your story is on the page not the screen, because you can’t even tell them apart by how they look. If your characters all blend into one, it makes the story a bit boring and confusing. You need clear and interesting characters all interacting who your audience can recognise quickly.
Real people have been shaped by their lives. They have pain and hopes, fears and dreams. If your character doesn’t have any unique little mannerisms that have been caused by experiences of life, they won’t feel like they were alive at all. You need your characters to feel like they have been alive beyond the limit of your story, you’re just jumping in to see what happens to them right now. Right now is the story, but their lives are bigger than that. Personality quirks tell your audience that these people have experiences that have shaped them, we just aren’t getting to witness them right now. And that makes them feel real.
If you’re writing a body swap or time travel story, personality quirks are essential. You need your audience to believe that two different actors are essentially the same person on the inside. Forget that body swapping is unbelievable, because in the world of your story it can be perfectly possible. Your audience will buy into the idea of body swapping. However, if you write your characters that are swapped are nothing like one another, then it becomes unbelievable. Use distinct mannerisms to demonstrate that the person inside is the same.
Examples Of Personality Quirks In Fiction
In The Nevers, (SPOILERS) you learn that Amalia True has certain personality quirks that are essential to the character. You see her tapping her fingers back and forth with her thumb, you see her examining her face in the mirror with curiosity. At first, these are just strange mannerisms that make her a clear and interesting person with something going on that the audience hasn’t been let in on yet.
However, you later learn that the body of Molly True, now Amalia True, has been inhabited by a woman named Zephyr from the future. When you meet Zephyr, you can immediately recognise that she will become Amalia True by the finger tapping. She examines her face repeatedly because it’s not the face she is familiar with having once lived in her own body.
In Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, Celeste wears a crucifix. She’s religious and it plays a large part in how she responds to events in the story, and conflict that arises with other characters. When she is nervous or thinking or worried, Celeste fingers her crucifix. She feels comforted and supported by feeling that piece of jewellery.
Because Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven has a large cast of characters to introduce quickly, this personality quirk is useful in two ways. Firstly, it makes her distinct. As soon as you meet her, she’s clearly the one who does that particular thing so you can identify something about her quickly. Secondly, it’s character development. She is not a flat character, she has passions and interests and beliefs beyond the immediate plot. This makes her feel more real.
How To Write Personality Quirks In Your Own Story
When you’re writing your characters, a first draft can easily have them be fairly flat because you don’t know them that well yet. But, by the end of your story, you should know your characters really well. You’ve spent time with them, written their development and progress, developed their backstory.
Work out something unique about them. Ideally, something that does more than just make them distinct. The best personality quirks will subtly impact the plot as well as make them stand out from the other cast members. You can then edit well. Seed the quirks early, develop them through your story, and use them to make your characters clear and interesting.
Look at your characters. Think about their backstory, what has happened to them to shape them as people. Have they developed habits to cope with stresses or fears? Are they competitive and speak too loudly to try and dominate the conversation? Do they play an instrument and tap out rhythms with their fingers when they’re thinking, or have calloused thumbs from playing guitar that the pick at? Are they an easily distracted personality that drifts off into daydreams, or are they incredibly focused and clap their hands together loudly to make others pay attention?
Create Story and Scene Level Conflict
Giving Celeste a strong faith in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven causes conflict. Another character, Tig, was abused by a religious cult in her childhood and has grown suspicious of all organised religion. This causes dispute between them on a personal level.
The Antagonist, Fadius, believes the crimes he’s committed are the command of his God. His faith causes him to kill. This causes conflict on a story wide level because of Celeste struggling with the idea of sharing beliefs with a murderer. Not only does this personality quirk serve to differentiate Celeste from other characters, but it feeds into the story conflict as a whole.
Be Careful With How You Use Them
Personality quirks can be small or large, positive or toxic. We are all shaped by our experiences and they have given us small habits we can’t break, or things we say or do without thinking about it. Some people are eternally optimistic and their quirk might be always finding the positive. Some people are incredibly vulnerable and might get panicky in crowds or startle terribly at loud noises. But be careful not to layer on too many quirks per character or they’ll distract from the story rather than enhancing it.
Work out what your story would benefit from, and make sure that you don’t misplace your quirk. If one character is religious, don’t accidentally give that response to another character. Be careful, be thoughtful. And use these personality quirks to develop your characters and enhance your storyline.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose