When I was 11, frustrated and sugar-crazed, I tried to open a Coke can with a steak knife. I’d broken the can’s pull-tab ring and shrewdly thought that I could plunge the knife through the aluminum seal. Instead, I plunged it fully through that flying-squirrel skin web between my thumb and forefinger. To this day, I can rub the little ball of scar tissue on that skin, and reflect on flawed decision-making.
In my mid-twenties, I was going to heat up a tortilla on an iron skillet. Having heated up many a tortilla on many a skillet, I knew that I could just hover my hand over the skillet to see how hot it was. Instead I put my hand flat on the surface of the pan. Message received!
But not quite, because years later, I did THE VERY SAME THING. Message not learned. (My book, Cooking with Tom—or Cooking Tom, available now.)
This is not to emphasize that I’m an idiot (though one could argue), but that people often do things that we puzzle over. Arming your fictional characters with specific eccentricities or traits—hates cats, never turns left unless forced to, starts a book by reading the last page—is a way to anchor a reader to a character, whether by delight or confusion or revulsion.
Saabs or Die
In A Man Called Ove, noted curmudgeon Ove loves Saabs. Other cars are for fools. “In the parking area, Ove sees that imbecile Anders backing his Audi out of his garage. It has those new, wave-shaped headlights, Ove notes, presumably designed so that no one at night will be able to avoid the insight that here comes a car driven by an utter shit.”
Now, Ove is always a sourpuss, but when this particular trope on the irrevocable superiority of Saabs recurs, you get a little tingle, “That Ove, what a freak!” that puts him deeper into your skin. You begin to look forward to him railing about other people’s cars.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain’s man-out-of-time lead character (“The Boss”) does a lot of work in the book to undermine (and make fun of) feudalism, the monarchy, and undemocratic elements of medieval England. But The Boss is never pure: he introduces modern marketing to the era, doing things like putting advertisements for soap on itinerant knights’ shields and introducing fee-based telephone service. The Boss’s commercial efforts, which are returned to over and over, is a side-plot that has the reader wondering what he’ll try to sell next.
And that bag o’ quirks can sell the reader on the character.
In Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Izzy, one of four daughters of the central character, is a black sheep of sorts. She is stubborn, opinionated, sometimes righteous, often clashing with her mother and other family members. What might first come off as a whining punk turns more into hard-won spunk when you see her bristling traits recur in new circumstance. There’s an “Oh jeez, who is she going to offend next?” kind of feeling, but when it happens again, you both react to it and further anticipate it.
Why am I telling you this? Besides hoping you’ll start a charity in my name, I think that detailing recurring behaviors that readers anticipate (or dread, which is another form of anticipation) supplies secondary novel elements that have readers wanting more. More of the characters, more of the book, more of your writing. These are not the deep, critical elements of story arc, character longing and tension, and denouement, but they are more than window dressing and novelty jokes. They give a story and its characters texture, and all texts need texture.
But do beware, soldiers of tantalizing texture, I’m not talking about “insert weird behavior here”—this isn’t larding in character idiosyncrasies so that every chocolate-chip cookie character has exactly ten chocolate chips.
We are looking here for ways and mannerisms in the nature of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, with his fussing with the measured length of his mustache, the careful preparation of his tisane, his fastidiousness with clothes, his self-referential “little gray cells”—so many habits and peccadilloes that could be regarded as annoying, but they are so much of a piece with the character’s essence, regardless if they figure in the solving of the crimes that are the heart of the works.
My latest book has a protagonist who gets himself into anxiety-inducing situations where his hat is always imperiled. The peculiar insults that the hat endures become a motif of sorts. They don’t figure into the storyline in any critical way, but they become like the forgotten $20 bill you find in a coat pocket, an unexpected burst of glee. (Well, glee for the reader. For poor Pinky, not so much.)
It has been some years since I’ve done the hot-pan trick, but that’s not to say I won’t do it again. I have a number of weird proclivities, some touching the OCD realm, but I probably won’t eat your dog. (But that’s no reason not to be cautious.) However, don’t be so cautious with your characters—if it propels the story, give them their full spectrum of character quirks, even if you have to make them drive Audis.
Doyens of WU: Do you think a work is richer and deeper with characters who have quirks or odd behaviors? What’s the best way to use those behaviors so they don’t seem like a diversion or a gimmick? What are your favorite character eccentricities; does the incorrectly used semicolon in this sentence make me look fat? [Note: I am traveling to me old mum’s in SoCal today, so my responses could be scattered. Which I suppose could be said for my responses on any day.]