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The Quirks List

Writing characters

What is a quirks list?

A ‘quirks list’ a list of key words, behaviours, mannerisms, memories, hidden motivations and personality traits (some of them conflicting) that will make your character respond in a particular way to the unfolding conflicts in your story. Creating a ‘quirks list’ will help your characters to come to life on the page. You can make a list of your character’s quirks based on:

  • Past experiences
  • Personality traits
  • Personas
  • Particular places
  • and other influences on your character and his or her world

Read on to find out more.

1. Past experiences

Past experiences form the fictional ‘past life’ of your character. These past experiences may or may not show up in your novel or story, but they will inform how the character behaves in the ‘now’ of your story. These experiences will inform their deepest desires. For example, they were ignored as a child, they now need to be heard. This will manifest in specific ways.

2. Personality traits

Several websites will talk you through what some psychologists call the so-called ‘Big 5 Personality Traits’ of agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, openness, and neuroticism. Here are a few of them:

Five personality dimensions

Big five personality theory

This one will even let you test your own personality, here: Big Five Test

In a nutshell, your characters will rank on a continuum – high or low – for each of these personality traits. If you like this theory, use it. If not, avoid it. It’s not necessary to use the big five in your quirks list, but knowing about them could provide a starting point for character development.

3. Personas

Personas are different faces your characters ‘put on’ or the ‘masks’ they wear to face different situations – or different significant people – in their lives. Your characters play roles, not necessarily in a deceptive way. They’ll show a different side of themselves when they’re at their mum’s for Sunday lunch / at a football match / at home with their girlfriend, for example, like we all do in different situations.

4. Particular places

Three-dimensional characters inhabit particular places. World building is an obvious requirement when it comes to fantasy or sci-fi, but all characters are living in a specific fictional world, even if it’s a seemingly ordinary or mundance one. The place they’re in has a big impact on how their personality operates. If they’re an adventurer at heart but they are trapped in a monastery, that will have an effect on what they do and say.

What else affects a person’s behaviour?

  • Your characters have dreams, desires, foibles, hopes, fears, anxieties, hang-ups, obsessions, motivations, qualities, talents, habits, and situations they find themselves in frequently. All of these will make them act in particular ways. These things translate into behaviours and those behaviours can go on your quirks list.
  • Your characters will also have relationships with a whole web of people – some of them are acquaintances, some family members, some close friends. We might not see all of these people of course, but we can imagine them there in the background.
  • Your characters will have a particular attitude towards life that they’ll demonstrate that through specific responses to the situations you put them in.
  • What’s more, just like any human being, your character’s personality will have contradictions.

Practical exercises

  1. Jot down some character words. Take each character and give them four or five words (in a list) that either sum them up, or offer an insight into their personality. For example, in my novel The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, Rachel had ‘magical’ and ‘books’ as two of her words. Examples include: clocks, glasses, maps, sneezes, sailing, childless.
  2. Memories. Come up with an important memory from your character’s childhood. Make it their earliest memory or the first time they did something (rode on a train, tasted beer, wore a dress, saw snow, danced in the rain, ate a banana).
  3. Dilemmas. Invent a dilemma that your characters might face. Instinctively, what decision do you think they would make? What would they do in this situation?
  4. Based on everything you’ve done so far, decide on some personality traits you can work with, such as ‘vain’ or ‘religious’. Some of them might seem to contradict one another. Now make another list giving specific actions the characters could perform that illustrate that character trait. For instance, if you say your character is thoughtful, perhaps they get shopping for their elderly neighbour. If they’re generous, perhaps they buy a round of drinks in the pub.

Create your quirks list

When you’re ready, create your quirks list – do one per character. Jot down all the mannerisms or habits your character has that sets them apart from other people. These can be subtle, or as bold as you like. The first time you draft your quirks list use your imagination and write down anything that occurs. Later, go over the list and filter it until you have a list of quirks that you could use in particular scenes in your story or novel. For example:

  • Likes to take apart clocks to see how they work
  • Wears glasses that are joined at the bridge by a sticky plaster
  • Collects maps and decorates the walls with them
  • Always sneezes twice
  • Secretly wants to sail round the world
  • Sad that they can’t have children

Want more? Try this.

Write a scene from the middle of your novel. Try to illustrate at least one of the ‘quirks’ on your list in this scene.

More soon. Until then, happy writing.

Louise xx




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