Any well-developed character has a distinct, defined personality that sets them apart from the rest of the cast. At a glance, quirks seem like a neat short cut for doing this. But like most short cuts, they’re not a substitute for the real thing.
Quirks are mildly unusual surface features of a character. These are the sort of thing you might notice without needing to speak to speak to someone for very long; Sue never shuts up about her love for strawberry iced cream, Jimmy likes to paint each of his fingernails a different color, Danielle ties her hair back with a red ribbon. Other quirks might emerge after you’ve spent a bit of time around someone, like a roommate’s annoying habit of cracking their knuckles against their jaw. The defining feature of a quirk is that it is distinctive but does not necessarily impart an intimate understanding of that person.
Character is defined by a deeper set of experiences and personality attributes. This is the sum of a person’s strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, motivations, important relationships, and environmental influences. Quirks are how you would describe an acquaintance. Character is how you would describe your best friend…
…but you’d probably also list a few of your friend’s quirks. Because quirks aren’t bad. In fact, when used well they can be a nice way of adding specificity to your characters to make them feel more real. Real people have quirks. The key to using quirks is to recognize that they aren’t a replacement for a personality, and that overburdening a character with quirks won’t necessarily make them more interesting.
Likewise, too many quirks can make a character difficult to empathize with. If they’re too busy being aggressively unique, they stop feeling relatable. This is especially true when the quirks don’t have any unifying factors: it’s like painting a room but neglecting to choose a color scheme, and the result tends to be hideous. Real people don’t spontaneously adopt disparate quirky behaviors unless they’re 1. a teenager or 2. disingenuously seeking attention, and so an overabundance of quirks tends to make characters highly unlikable.
In a well written character, the underlying personality informs their quirks. That is to say that the quirks compliment, complicate, or comment on the character. Consider, what sort of habits might someone pick up if they’re analytical? Sly? Vain? Free spirited? What habits would be unexpected in these people, and might suggest that they aren’t quite what they look like?
An example: There are a lot of different types of people who like Ben and Jerry’s phishfood ice cream. If all that I know about Sarah is that she likes this super specific flavor, I’ve got a snazzy tidbit of information about a stranger. She could be a hipster, a hippy, the child of two aging stoners, or someone who is just totally hung up on the little chocolate fish. She could be any of these things and her ice cream preference doesn’t tell me anything.
However, if I know her particularly well (let’s say that both her parents are stoners and she grew up in the hills of Vermont listening to jam bands) I can guess that this would be her favorite flavor. Or at least, when all the other kids are saying “chocolate” and she says “phishfood,” I won’t be surprised.
Writing like a boss: One way to know that your character is well-developed is that if someone asks you a question that you hadn’t thought of, you can still anticipate an answer. You have enough information that you can come up with a reasonable answer when presented with a blank space. Don’t start with character questionnaires. Knowing which pizza topping your character would be or what they like to read doesn’t equate to a deep understanding of that character. Rather, end with the questionnaire to test whether you’re done.
Images from Morguefile