Memorable Characters: Tics and Quirks and Oddities, Oh, My

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One way to create memorable characters is to give them verbal tics. An added benefit is that if you have a character who speaks with a certain pattern that is unique and recognizable, you can do away with dialogue tags for that character.

Who is this?

“Strong is the dark side, but fight you must.”

Yoda’s verbal pattern uses a figure of speech called anastrophe, which means he changes the normal words order in his sentences. Most would say, “The boy kicked the ball.” The boy=subject, kicked=verb, the ball=object. But Yoda switches these around from subject, verb, object, to verb, object, subject. “Kicked the ball, the boy did.”

There are other figures of speech you could use for your characters. What if you had a character who often used anadiplosis? Anadiplosis in his speech. Speech that set him apart from all the other characters. Other characters who sounded average and boring. Boring to you and boring to your readers. Readers who love to find quirky, fresh characters in books.

You don’t have to make every line of that character’s dialogue come out that way, but you may have a character who speaks that way when he grows agitated or is speaking passionately. Remember Ricky Ricardo breaking into Spanish when he got frustrated with Lucy?

Memorable characters in books I love

In a client’s book, The McVentures of Me, Morgan McFactoid: Hair Today Gone Tomorrow by Mark S. Waxman, the main character blurts out random facts when he gets nervous. He’s hilarious. In the opening of the book, he’s being chased by a bully. Here are a few lines that give you a glimpse of how he thinks when he’s nervous. He’s running down the street and this is his internal monolog:

I won’t lie to you: I was scared. My heart (which beats over 100,000 times a day) was pounding. My lungs were burning. (If your lung tissue were spread out, it would cover a tennis court.) And my legs felt like they were filled with sand. (Actors, before they go on stage, are often told to “break a leg.” This reflects an old superstition in which it is bad luck to wish someone good luck, so the opposite is done.)

You can imagine how he speaks to the beautiful girl next door when he comes face to face with her. It’s a riot.

This not a verbal tic so much as a character tic. But it works the same way. Often, when Morgan speaks in his breathless, hilarious voice, the author doesn’t need dialogue tags. Readers recognize that when trivia is spewing it’s coming from Morgan.

You can give your characters all kinds of cool tics.

In her delightful book, The Year the Swallows Came Early, Kathryn Fitzmaurice had Groovy navigate life with various foods. She cooked certain meals if she was happy and certain meals if she was sad. If she aced a test at school, it might be a scrambled-egg day, for instance. I think scrambled eggs were for when things were going well—it’s been a while since I read it. Great book, though. And a memorable character.

Memorable characters need fresh quirks

Be careful not to use the same odd behaviors that we’ve already come to know and love. If you use tics that have already been used, you may create memorable characters but they won’t be remembered fondly. There are characters who always quote old movies, and characters who always misuse or mispronounce words. Those have already been done, but you could put on some fresh twists (just as we do with the cliches we want to freshen up). So instead of quoting movies, your character might feel the fairest thing of all is to quote from fairy tales. Or you might move him in a mysterious way and have him quoting from Cowper hymns—or any old hymns.

He may hop down the sidewalk according to the rules that govern a chess piece—maybe he thinks he has to move two steps forward and three sideways. I don’t know why a character would do that. I’m just saying . . . instead of being afraid to step on cracks in the sidewalk, he might move two steps forward and three sideways.

So think about giving your characters verbal tics or personality quirks. These things help make them feel real.

Who are some of your favorite characters? Do they have any tics that make them memorable?

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8 comments

  • My three boys (ages 9 to 13) loved the Morgan McFactoid book and a good part of why was that he was always spouting interesting facts that they could share with the rest of the family. A brilliant move on the author’s part to make his character stand out and give his story that special shine. Oh, Artemis Fowl’s aristocratic snobbery as he insults mankind and fairy alike is great. Have you read any Tamora Pierce? She writes about girls who pretend to be boys so that they can become knights but in the fantasy kingdom of Tortall. Well her first series had the classic tough, angry, bold girl hiding her gender to become a knight. The next time she wrote about the first official lady page, squire, and finally knight and although the girl was known as a girl it was still a tough journey. But instead of creating another fiery character who was always flying off the handle and challenging people to duels, Ms. Pierce went the opposite way. Her girl had grown up in the Yamani Islands with her ambassador father (a fantasy Island that is pretty much ancient Japan) and showing emotion was considered horribly rude. So this girl faces all of her trials with a blank, calm face and never blinks an eye. She had strong emotion inside but is a rock outside and it adds a really interesting element to her character as she tries to stay true to her Yamani upbringing by never letting people fluster her.

    • I have not read Tamora Pierce. I guess I need to rectify that. I wish I could take a year off and just read. So many good books out there.

      I have read Artemis Fowl and I did love that kid, for sure.

  • Speaking of quirks, do any of you use WordPress? For the last couple of years my WordPress has had a quirk: When I copy and paste sections of text and then hit delete, the original sections does not get deleted. I am aware of this and try to catch it. But sometimes—when I’m up all night and don’t post until after five in the morning—my brain is completely fried.

    But I wonder if anyone else on Word Press has run into this. I don’t know if it’s Word Press or my theme, which is Zeenoble.

  • Starlettenyte Cain

    Hi Sally,
    I think the characters that stand out the most are the misfits, to me. The ones that don’t conform to the rest of the crowd. So in other words, they dare to be different. In future projects, I will definitely try to put a twist on my characters. I like to share with the world. Thanks for the tip.

    Star

  • It’s a shame one of my sons’ (they’re twins) quirks has already been used: quoting old/classic movies. They can recite most of Casa Blanca, for instance. If they decide to participate together in this entertaining passing of time, it’s hilarious. I’ve heard them do others, too, and also patch together conversations just with snippets from movies. Do they have nothing better to do with their time?
    Your blog post is good food for thought, coming on the heels of a workshop presented by James Rubart at OCW last weekend. He gave us a list of questions to answer about a main character to make them more real, and overall, the answers would create a unique, interesting personality for the character, which I think is what you’re getting at here.

  • Ooooh, misfits! I agree with you Starlettenyte. I think my favorite misfit is Hiccup Horendous Haddock III. The boys and I are listening to book #12 in the car, for the second time. The ending makes me weep and cheer and smile all at once. Such a good misfit and yes, a hero in the end after all.

  • I love how you demonstrated anadiplosis in your post, Sally. I enjoy your writing. Your advice here on verbal tics and character quirks is timely for me. I’ll be applying it this very morning. Thank you!

  • I use WordPress, Sally, but I can’t say I’ve run into that quirk. To be fair, though, I rarely copy and paste. I stick to plain ‘ol writing by the seat of my pants and hope for the best. :-)

    Hmmm…I can’t think of any memorable characters with quirks; I’ve been reading so much Patricia MacLachlan and Jacquelyn Mitchard for Springmingle, I can’t think of any other books. I can, however, think of movie/TV characters! Yay!

    What about Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Mr. Spock from Star Trek, The guys in the Odd Couple, so distinctly different and quirky. And my favorite now, from the Blacklist: Reddington. Oh my word, James Spader is brilliant, and the writer who created that character was even more brilliant!

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