Quirks. Not only is the word incredibly entertaining, but the gems it denotes are pretty awesome too.
Quirks are one of those aspects of characterisation that often get overlooked - I mean, it's bad enough trying to give a three-dimensional personality, backstory, and workable motivation to a figment of your imagination without trying to go into details that probably aren't remotely important to the story.
However, I think quirks are pretty fantastic.
No one human who came into being without time-shifts, duplication, or an unfortunate encounter with a wonky wand and a jar of marmite, is exactly the same as another. Likewise, we are shaped by a variety of factors that determine who we are. For the sake of simplicity, I'm confining the nature-v-nurture debate to my Ethics essays, but I think most of us can agree that the way a person is brought up, what they experience, and how that affects their personality will have a massive range of effects on their overall character.
Exposition on how a character's backstory affects their behaviour, however, is generally considered a bad idea outside of the works of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, and getting tangled up in the detailed nuances is like hunting for a munchkin's wedding ring in a vat of month-old spaghetti. Yet, sometimes, there are moments in the story when the reader's awareness of a certain past experience of a character is important.
So, why not give them a quirk that reflects it? The term "quirk" that I refer to here is not strictly an idiosycratic aspect of the character - I'm referring to habits, either physical or otherwise, usually something the character does without really noticing, that reflect some facet of their nature or experience.
Par example: say you have a character who, at some stage in their lives, has been involved in the army, but you want to show this to the reader rather than telling them outright. In which case, maybe they have a trigger-finger reflex when holding something gun-shaped, or stand in a parade-like manner when being addressed by an authority figure. Conversely, it might be something in the type of language they used - if they were in a position of command, maybe in a situation of action they revert to the command words and tone of voice they used in a combat situation? Whether anyone understands them, though, is a far more debatable matter.
This, of course, is a fairly simple example, but the principle remains the same. It works outside of professions, too - a nervous character might have a habit of wringing their hands when nervous, and one who struggles with a bad temper may grind their teeth or crack their knuckles when something piques their annoyance.
None of these quirks have to be made overtly ostensible to get the reader's attention. When someone is very interested in a character, they will often pick up on very small things about them as a result. What's more, the presence of the quirks themselves can add a subtle edge of realism to the character - real people chew their nails and annoy their classmates by eternally clicking the end of their ballpoint pen, so why shouldn't fictional ones? In the case of non-human characters, a relatable trait can really help in overcoming the initial boundary of culture and species (which is exactly why my teen-foot-tall, sharp-toothed, semi-psychotic assassin with mind-based magical abilities is addicted to chewing coffee beans to alleviate a craving for caffiene).
Overall, quirks are endlessly useful in their versatility as exemplars of backstory, personality, and relatability. How one uses these quirks is up to the author - are you going to exploit it for comic effect, pathos, or as a hint to that gut-wrenchingly good plot twist that will have your reader flipping back through the pages screeching 'HOW DID I MISS THAT!?' in less time than it takes to make a cup of tea?
Do you like to use quirks for any of these purposes? Do you like using character quirks at all, or are they just a waste of time? Let me know in the comments!
~ Charley R