Creating a ‘quirk list’ will make your characters come to life!
Three-dimensional characters have past experiences
These form the fictional ‘past life’ of your character. These past experiences may or may not show up in your novel, but they will inform how the character behaves in the ‘now’ of your story. These experiences will inform their deepest desires. If they were ignored as a child, they need to be heard, for example. This will manifest in specific ways.
Three-dimensional characters have 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. In a nutshell, your characters will rank on a continuum – high or low – for each of these personality traits. Here are a couple:
This one will even let you test your own personality, here: Big Five Test
If you like this theory, use it. If not, avoid it. It’s not obligatory to use the big five in a quirk list, but knowing about it does give you some context to work with.
Three-dimensional characters have personas
Personas are different faces your characters ‘put on’ or ‘masks’ they wear to face different situations – or different significant people – in their lives. They 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.
Three-dimensional characters inhabit a particular place
World building is an obvious requirement when it comes to fantasy or sci-fi, but all characters are living in a specific fictional world. 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.
Three-dimensional characters are a mishmash of all of the above
Your characters have dreams, desires, foibles, hopes, fears, anxieties, hang-ups, obsessions, motivations, qualities, talents, habits, and situations they find themselves in frequently. They’ll have relationships with a whole web of people – some of them are acquaintances, some close friends. We might not see all of these people, of course, but we can image them there in the background. Three-dimensional characters also have a particular attitude towards life that they’ll demonstrate that through specific behaviour. What’s more, just like any human being, your character’s personality will have contradictions.
So how do you work on all of this in a practical sense? Try these exercises!
- 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. For example: clocks, glasses, maps, sneezes, sailing, childless.
- 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).
- 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?
- Based on everything you’ve done so far, decide on some character 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.
Make your quirk list
When you’re ready, make your quirk list – do one per character. Use everything you’ve done so far. Your quirk list is a list of 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 quirk list use your imagination and write down anything that occurs. Later, go over your quirk list and filter it until you have a list of quirks that you can use either to form a new character, or inform an existing one. You want to end up with five or six per character.
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
Write a scene from the middle of your novel
Using your quirk list, write a scene from the middle of your novel. Try to illustrate at least one of the ‘quirks’ on your list in this scene.
Happy writing. x Louise
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