To Quirk or Not to Quirk

On December 10, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you create a personality for your main character? For some odd reason, my main characters just seem to be girls who like to read and who are outgoing, at least for the most part. The side characters all have very distinct personalities, for example, the very proper princess who likes everything to be perfect and can’t stand anything that makes her seem like a commoner. Another princess is a complete rebel- she’s the youngest of three, and both of her older siblings someday rule a kingdom, leaving her to be kind of forgotten.

And then there’s my MC, who doesn’t have much personality. She’s pretty much every other girl.

How can I make her more distinct and unique?

Melissa Mead wrote back, Hm. What about this character made you pick her to be the MC? That could be a clue.

This is such an interesting question!

I’ve had the same worry myself. My secondary characters are generally quirkier than my MCs. And so are those of other authors. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem.

Let’s take Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. It’s told in third-person omniscient, and the narrator has personality along with the characters. But the eyes the reader most often sees the story through are Wendy’s. She’s sweet, kind, somewhat adventurous but also conventional and not very quirky. This allows the reader to slip inside her. I certainly did when I was little, and I still do.

Peter is strange, magical, irritating, brave. His thought process is alien. He’s fascinating–viewed from the outside, because it’s impossible to get in. When I was little, I wanted to marry him! I couldn’t understand why Wendy goes home.

Now I do. He’d be an impossible, unreliable partner. Too quirky!

Or take the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is the POV character because he doesn’t have a big personality, and because, while not stupid, he isn’t extraordinarily smart. Doyle couldn’t put the reader inside Holmes’s head, because then the reader would have to see the steps Holmes takes to reach his conclusions, and the magic would evaporate.

I don’t often read novels or watch TV series with unsympathetic MCs, who always have distinctive qualities. I don’t enjoy being inside them, though a lot of people do–kind, decent people, who think these MCs are funny. So I mean no condemnation toward the writers who write unpleasant MCs. After all, these writers are most likely also kind, decent people, who just want to explore extreme characters. I want to do that, too, in my secondaries. For example, I’m captivated by many of my villains, like Skulni and Ivi in Fairest and Vollys in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

Having said all this, of course we don’t want our MCs to be ciphers (nonentities). So how do we give them the kind of (probably limited) personalities that our readers can mind-meld with?

We can look to our plots for guidance, which is what I do, because I’m a plot-centered writer. Character is super important to me, but plot is paramount. If you’re like me, you can ask yourself, What does my MC need to succeed in the end and yet also have to struggle along the way? Ella, who has a curse of obedience to contend with, is naturally defiant. Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, who has to face monsters in her quest for a cure to a dread disease, is shy and timid. Aza in Fairest, whose looks are unfashionable, is sensitive about them.

What will bring our MC’s environment into sharp relief and make her and our readers suffer for her? Loma in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, whose life is full of stress, loves the orderliness of numbers and counts compulsively to calm herself. Dave in Dave at Night, who lives in the regimented world of an orphanage, is a rebel, which both gets him into trouble and saves him.

If we’re character rather than plot centered, we start with character. What problem can we give our defiant MC? A curse of obedience! What else? Whatever problem we give her, how else will it shape her? How else can we shape her around it?

So that’s one strategy: use our plots to determine our MC’s quirks.

Let’s look at Ella close up, and I hope I don’t spoil her for anybody. What do we discover as we read? She’s defiant, persistent, has a sense of humor, a warm heart, comes up with clever things to say, and is generally intelligent. Hardly unique. Her lack of uniqueness lets the reader inhabit her.

Let’s go back to Loma for a sec. Her counting obsession is a quirk. If she were a secondary character, I’d probably bring the quirk up often, because I want the reader to remember her. But since she’s my MC, I bring it in only occasionally and trust the reader to remember. For the rest, she’s clever and loyal. Her primary motivator is her deep love for children, especially for her nieces and nephews–a trait shared by many people.

So that’s another strategy: introduce the quirk, remind the reader occasionally, keep the character consistent with it, but don’t harp on it. The reader will remember.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing a mystery from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. See if you can show the reader how his mind works and still keep his brilliance an enigma. If not, just go with him as he comes to you.

• Your MC is contending against her two brothers for the throne of Saker. The competition has three stages: to fetch a golden feather of the misa bird from the depths of a witch’s forest; to think of three policies that will make and keep the kingdom’s subjects happy; and to cross to the middle of an oiled tightrope to proclaim the three policies to the seven judges of the succession. And the unspoken final condition: to survive long enough to rule. Think about the qualities your MC needs to have to have a shot at success and the flaws that will get in her way. Give her a single quirk. Make the brothers super quirky. Write the story.

• Write the same story from the POV of one of the brothers.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Your blog posts and the suggestions from your loyal readers always bring me inspiration. Along with Linda Sue Park’s “simple ” lessons, I feel calmer. Thanks fir your sharing, Gail.

  2. SluggishWriter says:

    This has been one of my favorite recent posts! Very helpful. It inspired another question I have about my WIP: how do I avoid falling into royalty tropes? I’m writing a science fiction novel that has a lot of roots in fairy tales and my main character is a princess. I worry that making her the classic “rich-girl-never-seen-the-real-world-and-can’t-do-anything-for-herself” is too overused. Is there a way I can give her a more modern touch?

    • Do you want her to be modern, or just to not fall into that stereotype? What makes your story Science fiction rather than fantasy?

      Is it a rich kingdom, or does it have titles and history, but not much else?
      Is it a safe, secure kingdom, or is it surrounded by larger rivals?
      Does it seem safe, but is there danger at court?
      That’s the role of a princess in this kingdom? What do people expect of them?

      • SluggishWriter says:

        I’m a discovery writer/panster, so I don’t have a lot of world building for her “kingdom.” I want to create a more sophisticated governing system, but “princess” really describes her situation best. Pretty early on in my story, for first time ever she has to find her own way through the world and can’t reveal who she is. I just want to make sure I’m not over using that sort of situation, or how to make her situation more believable. Especially because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “oh, she’s clueless but somehow manages to be good at everything and save the universe without showing actual talent” kind of thing.

        • One way of thinking about this that might help is that naivete, general competence, and talent (in a specific area) aren’t always the same thing and aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

          To me, naivete is simply having an idea of how the world works that is different from how the world actually works. A person can be smart and competent in general but naive in a particular situation, just because that’s a situation that they’re not used to. That’s how most “fish out of water” stories are built on. Naivete also isn’t permanent, and shouldn’t be, because people are generally pretty good at learning and adapting to suit the world around them.

          General competence, on the other hand, is your ability to think critically, solve problems, and make good common sense decisions with the information you have available. Sometimes your information may be *wrong* (see naivete point above) and thus things turn out bad, but if the reader can understand your character’s decision-making process and it shows a decent amount of thought and sensibility, they should be fine. As long as someone makes an effort to make smart choices and are willing to correct themselves and learn from their mistakes when wrong, they’re going to develop general competence eventually.

          Talent is being good at one specific thing, usually as a result of practice. Unless a character is completely unmotivated or incompetent in general, they should be good at *something*. Ideally that something should be relevant to the story.

          For example, in my portal fantasy story, my main character is a 13-year-old aspiring lawyer from New York who ends up as the Evil Overlord of a fantasy kingdom. She starts out very naive to the workings of her new kingdom in the sense that she’s used to a democratic form of government and thus tries to institute that in her new realm, while in reality the government there is the standard evil, scheming, murderous fantasy court. This difference of viewpoint gets her into a lot of trouble. Yet she’s still smart and competent in that she quickly learns from her mistake and adapts her own style of ruling to fit the environment, and also thinks on her feet to come up with creative problems in other situations. Finally, she has a specific talent developed during her years as an aspiring lawyer: public speaking and lots fo legal knowledge. She gets several opportunities to use her talents in creative ways, but she’s also not talented at *everything*. For example, she’s not as good as a fighter as her friends and she can’t use magic like some other characters. But she still manages to (kinda) save the world because she’s fairly clever, good at the job she has chosen, has a determination to work hard, and can solve problems creatively.

          • SluggishWriter says:

            First of all, your story sounds amazing. And that’s very true, I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you so much!

    • One thing that I’d personally love to see more in fiction is royals (especially female royals) who are trained in and actually good at ruling. I feel like a lot of princesses in fiction fall into the “princess classic” (think early Disney) types that are sweet and pretty but don’t really do much, the “spunky adventurer/warrior/assassin” type (think modern Disney and most princesses in current YA literature, which probably came about as a direct counterpoint to the princess classic), and the “political intrigue chessmaster” type (typically in more adult, gritty historical-fiction type works like Game of Thrones) that’s ambitious and cunning and trying to scheme their way to the top. While all of these have their own merits, I can’t help but think that none of these princesses would actually be good at running a country long-term.

      At its core, ruling is a form of leadership and requires a) being able to make sound decisions that affect large amounts of people, ESPECIALLY during times of turmoil b) being able to convince people to follow your directions, and c) understanding that you have a responsibility to take care of those underneath you and, if not actively trying to help them, at least not make their lives worse due to malice/negligence/incompetence. To do that, you need a good understanding of public policy and statecraft and the critical thinking skills to put that knowledge into action.

      For once I’d like to see a princess who faces a real-world problem (like an impending war) and tries to solve the problem using things people would actually do in the real world (diplomacy, negotiations, strategic thinking in domestic and international policy) and actually be good at it.

      Moana is a good example of this type of princess; in the beginning of the movie you see several scenes where she’s learning to lead her village in the future by actually making decisions and problem-solving for the benefit of her community. You can also look at examples of modern royals in Europe; a lot of them study political/social science fields in college or go to military school (which, in addition to standard military stuff also teaches you leadership skills) for this reason.

    • One thing I like to do is to research what has already been done and kind of the psychology behind them. Brandon Sanderson talks about the difference between a cook and a chef, the idea being that a cook only follows a recipe (uses tropes), while a chef studies what ingredients he has and combines them in new and interesting ways.
      I like to use TV tropes for my research. Here’s a link to their list of tropes having to do with royalty (warning: you might spend more time than you planned on)

  3. Very helpful post!
    Something along the same lines I’ve been having trouble with lately is remembering to bring up my characters’ quirks (or just physical traits I’m not used to (ie wings)). Where’s the line between bringing up quirks too much (like you said to avoid in the last couple paragraphs of this post) and not bringing them up enough? And does this line vary if it’s a physical thing versus just a behavioural thing?

    • I think that the line between not enough and too much is a matter of opinion, as much as anything else. If it’s important to the plot of your story, bring it up more frequently. If it isn’t, you can mention it less frequently. When you’re ready, ask your beta readers whether you got the balance right. Sometimes, as an author, you can get too familiar with the story to notice when more explanation is needed.

      • Writeforfun says:

        A lot of times I make use of the quirks in order to avoid floating head syndrome (long lines of interchanging dialogue between characters), which I am painfully prone to. I like to pepper the quirks into these scenes to break up my long portions of dialogue by showing what the characters are doing (i.e. fidgeting or hunching for my self-conscious character, or gesturing or flipping hair back for my dramatic character) while they talk. I feel like since they do double duty that way, the quirks are less likely to feel like “too much” even if I do pepper a lot of them in there (that said, I’m careful not to use every one of their quirks in each and every conversation. I try to envision the scene and do what feels natural). I don’t know yet whether I’ve gone overboard with them – I think I’m just going to need more beta readers for that! But, the one I have so far likes it, and I like, it so I figure that’s the most important thing at the moment anyway. 😉

        As for the wings example in particular, I’ve never had characters with wings but in my last stories I had several characters that weren’t human. One of them had a tail, and I mentioned it frequently because I was able to use it for expression – so when he was sad it would droop and when he was happy it would wag, for example. Another character had ears that I could use in the same way (which was fun because he was a very stoic character, so he would be frowning and trying to look indifferent while his ears perked forward, betraying his interest, or pinned back in fear). If your character with wings can perhaps flutter extra fast when she’s excited, or droop when she is sad, you can mention those particular quirks instead of saying, “And this character was sad.” Or even if they don’t, you can still mention that said character was flapping her wings lazily, or that the light was reflecting off the iridescent membranes or glossy feathers, while describing the setting at any point.

        If the character has wings because they are a different species, people may actually point the out (“what does the winged-one have to say?”). Also, practically, it may affect what they have to do (“she stooped to keep from knocking her wings into the door frame”). Last of all, it may affect her personality. She may be self-conscious about them or proud of them, or even annoyed with them, which would affect her behavior accordingly.

  4. Hi Gail,
    I’ve been a fan of your books since I was around nine years old. I’m twenty-two now and I’m still a fan. 🙂 I was wondering, if I sent you a letter with a blank bookplate and a self-addressed stamped envelope, would you be willing to sign it for me? You are one of the authors I would most love to have a signed book from, and I know I’m not going to make it to New York anytime soon (I’m on the West Coast). I know this is a long shot, but I figured it was worth asking. Thanks for your time and for your wonderful writing blog, I’ve been reading it for years and it’s helped me a lot on my own writing journey.


  5. How do you combine your writing voice with someone else’s? My grandmother left around fifteen notebooks of information for a novel, and I really want to finish it, but I’m worried about keeping it true to her while, at the same time, keeping it true to my own writing. Essentially, what I’m wondering is how do you finish something someone else started?

  6. The story I’m working on has a very international cast of characters. Do any of you have ideas for finding non-English names for your characters?

  7. Writeforfun says:

    Any advice on shortening a book? I’ve been working on revising the one I recently finished, a probably upper middle grade novel. I had written it in three separate documents, but I just added them all together for the first time and realized that it’s over 100,000 words long…and there’s still a vast middle portion I haven’t added yet (what I wrote originally didn’t fit right anymore with the characters, so I’ve deleted it and need to re-write that part).

    I’m sure that number will go down as I continue to work on removing unnecessary words (though I’ve been pleased so far to realize how few adverbs I used this time around! I think I’m learning!), but still, I’m worried that the book itself may just been too much. At its core, it’s a pretty simple story: three boys meet, eventually become friends, and solve a mystery. But it’s really an origin story, setting up their world, establishing their backstories and taking the journey to get these three oddballs to the point of becoming acquaintances in order to solve the mystery, and finally becoming true friends over the course of their actual adventure in solving said mystery.

    Altogether, it’s making for a giant book. Should I simplify the story? Maybe have them become friends more easily/quickly so I can skip some of the character development pages? I can’t think of any way to get rid of the world building, or the backstories I had to establish at the beginning because they’re so essential to the characters – but maybe I should try? Or should I be trying to simplify in any other areas?

    • Have you considered splitting it into multiple books? I’ve recently done that with one story. The story was around 90k words, which was fine, but I fit too many characters and too many plotlines into it that weren’t getting the space they needed. So I split it into thirds and am making it a trilogy. That gives me the space to develope elements and characters that were glossed over in the first draft. It has been tricky finding a good climax for books 1 and 2, and making sure that the main character’s arcs work in all three books, not just overall, but I think the story is better for it.

    • I’m pretty good at shortening things, but I don’t have a clear formula for how I do it. (my first sales were to a market with a 600-word limit, so I had to learn how to trim rough drafts of ~1,000 words.) Let me think… Cut scenes that aren’t pulling their weight, reword paragraphs, find shorter but more powerful phrases to use….

      If you think it would be helpful, you can send me a page or 2, I’ll take my razor to it and send it back, and you can see if it gives you any ideas.

    • As a fast reader, I personally relish long books. I don’t think that there’s anything particularly bad about having a giant manuscript. If you feel like it’s too long but can’t think of anything to cut, show it to beta readers. Ask them what they could do without. If you love something and can’t think of cutting it, just tell yourself it’ll be a bonus scene for when you’re a famous author and can put extras in the back of your books. ; )

  8. RedTrumpetWriter says:

    I was wondering how you came up with the epic poetry you wrote in the Bamarre stories, Gail and some of the songs/poetry you’ve included in other stories like Stolen Magic. I would like to include something like that in a book I’m working on but I guess I wasn’t really sure where to start, like what examples I should look at or if there was any sort of formula that you followed. I’ve done a bit of looking but I was wondering if you had any tips/advice that would help me as I found what you did really immersive and such a cool part of the worldbuilding. (if anyone else has ideas they are welcome to chime in as well!) Thanks.

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