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Writing

How to Add Depth to Characters With Quirks and Mannerisms

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 5 min read

Character traits help define the characters in your world and make them feel like real people. These personality traits can be quirky, habitual, or ingrained in the character’s mannerisms. When thinking of how to incorporate the personality quirks and traits of your own main characters, try to figure out how each detail enhances who your inhabitants are, or reveals information about them that will connect them to your audience.

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What Are Character Quirks?

Character quirks are the memorable little things about a character’s personality that make them charming, endearing, weird, or unique. A quirk is anything worth describing about a character that makes them stand out, like certain speech patterns (a character who mumbles), or behavioral tics (someone who can’t make eye contact). Quirks can also be a character’s clothing, the way they smell, or whether they use their left hand or if they’re ambidextrous. Little quirks or idiosyncrasies can humanize a character—or at the very least, make them interesting.

What Are Character Habits?

Character habits are the patterns of behavior exhibited by characters either involuntarily or in response to other stimuli. For example, a character who can’t stop winking when they get nervous, or someone who always smokes a cigarette with their morning coffee. Habits are often repeated under specific circumstances, or in some cases incorporated into a character’s routine. Good habits can reveal things about your character, like someone who always cleans their house before company arrives can be a stickler for neatness and presentation. However, bad habits can also be especially powerful, as they expose certain flaws about your characters, paving the way for growth and development.

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What Are Character Mannerisms?

Character mannerisms are a character’s unconscious individual gestures, affectations, or other distinctive behavioral traits. Characters’ mannerisms can indicate particular aspects about them. For example, someone who is always slouching may perpetually lack confidence, or a character is always squinting because they’re too prideful to admit they need glasses. Mannerisms can help your audience tell your fictional characters apart from one another, giving them their own identity. They can also help your characters feel more three-dimensional, like people you’ve met in real life.

7 Tips for Using Quirks, Habits, and Mannerisms for Writing Realistic Characters

Quirks, habits, and mannerisms can be so useful for writers to incorporate during the character creation process. Whether your focus is writing a novel or short stories, little aspects of a character’s personality can help make them feel layered and real, strengthening the connection and empathy your audience has with them.

  1. Make a list. Write your own list of quirks, habits, and mannerisms. Think about the people you know. Which family members are introverts? Who is always the life of the party? Do they say any specific things or behave in a particular way that indicates these aspects of their personalities? Think of a character you’ve read about in a book or seen in a TV show or movie—what were their strengths? What were their foibles? Also, consider complete strangers you’ve passed on the street. Which ones do you remember, and why?
  2. Ask yourself why. If you’ve thought of a list of character traits you find interesting, consider why those particular ones stood out to you. Why do you want to give your character a weird sneeze? Why is it important that they’re vegan? Why you want to use a trait and its effect on personality are two important things to be cognizant of when building your own characters.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Use quirks, habits, and mannerisms to say more about your characters than words can. You don’t have to tell your readers that your protagonist always feels awkward when he enters a crowded room—show them he feels that way by putting it into his movement. Instead of normally walking into the room, the character always shuffles meekly, or has to give themselves a pep-talk before entering. Descriptions like these can paint a more vivid picture of both the scene and your character for audiences.
  4. Consider your setting. If you’re writing a piece that takes place in the 1990s, your main character isn’t going to check their cell phone constantly, or use certain types of modern slang. Make sure the behaviors and habits you incorporate into your character development line up with the time period or setting you’ve established.
  5. Don’t overdo it. In fiction writing, a good combination of quirks can help create more memorable characters by including small things that make them charming, endearing, weird, or unique. However, overloading your character descriptions with these traits will have the opposite effect, and make them feel ungrounded and unrelatable. Quirks, habits, and mannerisms should be used sparingly, and only to enhance the character as a whole. If your character walks with a limp, has a catchphrase, wears ugly clothes, speaks with a stutter, and considers their stuffed animal their best friend, they will seem like a complete caricature to your audience. Characters shouldn’t need an overload of gimmicks to be memorable, just a few specific details that help bring them to life in a natural and interesting way.
  6. Avoid clichés. Nothing makes a character feel less realistic than an adherence to unbelievable and tired tropes. If you want to develop unique characters, go against the grain. The gruff character with the eyepatch might be the nicest person in the neighborhood, or the clumsy girl-next-door might actually be a serial killer. Even if you’re experiencing writer’s block, don’t rely on clichés. Instead, think of all the basic ways characters have been portrayed throughout and go in the opposite direction.
  7. Try writing prompts. Character writing prompts can help you imagine new combinations of traits to give to your characters. A prompt can force you to think outside the box you’ve built for your character, putting them in other situations and seeing how they behave. This can help draw out features of the character that you hadn’t thought of yet, while also expanding your character writing skills.

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