When I was in the 4th grade there was a boy who sat next to me who ate glue. Every morning he would pull out a bottle of Elmer’s he kept tucked in his backpack and squirt a blob on his desk. After it dried, he would carefully peel it away from the wood and eat it. This was his morning ritual. I remember thinking maybe his mother didn’t make him breakfast before school, so one day I asked.
“Why do you eat that?”
“I like it.”
That was all he said before turning his attention to the chalkboard. So began my life as a people-watcher. I didn’t know then, but people watching would play an important role in my life. Observing the idiosyncrasies or quirks displayed by family, friends and strangers on the street is beneficial to me when it comes to creating characters.
Everyone has quirks; something that is unique, odd or special. You might even say it borders weirdness. I have to admit, I did think it was a little weird that my classmate ate glue every morning, but I was 10 years old, who was I to judge?
I love characters that leave a lasting impression long after I’ve read the last page. I want characters that are three-dimensional with complex emotions and conflicting motives. Characters who are complicated and have messy lives are someone I will root for. By adding a quirk or two, maybe a twitch, an obsession or a habit allows the reader to see inside the character, even if the other characters cannot. I relate to a character that is obsessed with clean hands or eats M&Ms by the color. As a child, I used to separate my M&Ms by the color before popping them in my mouth and these days, I never leave home without my antibacterial wipes.
Many years ago, as a job requirement, I was fingerprinted. The supervisor made several attempts to obtain good prints, but finally gave up and sent me to the Sheriff’s Department for electronic printing. Even electronically, the technician wasn’t able to get clear prints. He asked me if I washed my hands a lot. I revealed my germaphobe tendencies, and he explained how he has seen “bad” fingerprints in scrub nurses and doctors.
As fun as it may be to give your characters quirks, be careful not to overdo it. The reader might begin to get annoyed and then the quirks become the story. Case in point, I’ll be remembered now as the writer who washed her fingerprints down the drain.