Monday, August 15, 2011

Quirks and Foibles


It seems to me that the best writers, the ones whose books really stay with me, are connoisseurs of human nature. Being proficient at craft, or excelling at it, is good, but not enough, nor is a crackerjack plot. I relish learning things about the human condition and people.

I also think this is part and parcel of what propels some people to become writers—this desire to wrestle with and better understand the human condition. Do writers become observers of people so they have material? Or, do acute observers of people become writers so they have something to do with all that knowledge they’ve accumulated? Chicken? Egg? For most writers I know, this people watching begins at the earliest of ages.

I’ve also decided that people fall into two groups; those who like and are attracted to perfection, and those who are charmed by and attracted to quirks and foibles. I am willing to bet that a majority of writers fall into that latter category.

The thing about perfection is that it is often boring in its beauty, there is nothing innately interesting or human about it, no place for me in its vista. And I say this as a rank perfectionist—if I am not perfect, I have failed, so as a goal, perfection holds huge appeal for me. And yet, what I love most about people is their quirks and foibles. Their personal behavioral tics and oddities.

~The thirty five year old muscle bound guy who still has a baby animal calendar.
~The precision machinist who can’t get the sugar in the sugar bowl or the coffee grounds in the filter, but can execute the most precise of measurements on a metal lathe.
~The sleek, sexy brand spanking new black dodge charger being driven by an eighty year old lady.
~The woman who feels called to the priesthood, but also has an unholy obsession with Jimmy Choos.
~The guy who drives a gorgeous Porsche, but can’t stand driving in traffic so he rarely gets it out.
~The laid back surfer girl who cannot be in the same room with a change jar without sorting the coins into neat little stacks.

Quirks can also be physical—the kid whose ears turn bright red when he gets embarrassed, the stunning woman who bites her lip or nails, the kid whose twirled his hair so often he has a bald spot…

Quirks and foibles are often a chink in our armor, an indicator at how hard won our mastery of some skill or behavior really is. They are a physical manifestation of our deepest level conflicts.

Take a look at the people around you. What is it that most endears them to you? I’m betting it’s not their straight A report card or excellent punctuality record. No, I’m betting it’s that little something that only they do, it might even be a tad odd or strange…The thing is, a lot of this behavior can cross over into the highly annoying, it’s a matter of degree really.

But I wonder if we use that enough in our writing?

What quirks and foibles do your characters have? Not just pasted on to simply be funny or clever, but one’s you can trace back to their development as a person?

5 comments:

Becky Levine said...

Great post, Robin. I think this is also where strong voice comes from--pushing our characters (or letting them roam!) into the extreme, into the weird, the quirky, the different.

I'm trying to let my MC get bossier and a bit more selfish. Hard not to keep pulling her back in! :)

Beth C. said...

I'm a major outliner, but a lot of times I find these important quirks only emerge as I write/revise and get to know my characters more.

In one of my books, my character is a healer who has never been able to remain conscious while touching a living creature. Therefore, she has an odd craving for tactile sensations. She often strokes fabrics or rubs seams, and prefers the heft of real books over the electronic kind.

I have another urban fantasy heroine who is take-charge and quick-witted in battles against monsters, but is very anxious otherwise and has huge issues with panic attacks while driving in cars. Her family was killed in a car accident.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Becky, I agree that these sorts of quirks and where a great, strong voice comes from! Good luck on giving your MC free rein!

Beth, I so agree with you that the quirks only emerge as you spend more and more time with the characters and give them time to come to life on the page. I love that your healer craves tactile sensations! Perfect! And so is the fearless heroine who has one area where she is decidedly NOT fierce!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I think I'd argue that perfection includes quirks - that oddities are not imperfections! But, as you say, they have to be integral to the character, not stuck on as a gimmick.
Also, I know not everyone would agree, but I admit that as a reader I have limited tolerance for imperfections that take the form of real cruelty or self-destructively bad decisions, for example. I've never been able to get into books where I just don't respect the main character.
Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

Adele Richards said...

I love a quirky quirk.

My own personal idiosyncracy: I cannot abide an open door.

If my husband leaves the door ajar more than a tolerable amount, I have to get up and close it.

That reminds me of a joke:

When is a door, not a door?

When it's a jar!

BOOM BOOM.