Characterization: Writing Quirky Characters

As stated in my previous post, character biographies are essential to creating three-dimensional characters.

Another technique for 3D characters: give ’em quirks. A quirk can be anything from being obsessive about punctuality or neatness to flopping on a couch first thing every morning to watch ESPN or always walking around the house barefoot. The late, great American novelist and historian, Shelby Foote, once said in an interview that he wrote in his pajamas. Now I’d call that a quirk.

The Author Who Lived in His Pajamas – The Author’s Cove: John “Jack” Cunningham on Writing & History (

So, give each of your characters habits and traits that are peculiar to them.

For example, C.S. Forester’s naval hero, Horatio Hornblower, possesses a quirk about baths–he likes having his men hose him down on deck whenever he takes one.

Rex Stout’s fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, is a homebody. He’d rather tend his orchids than step outdoors onto the busy streets of New York. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, does all of the running around and investigating.

Observation of people helps us create similar believable, and quirky, characters. How do others talk? What mannerisms and gestures do they use? Any pet words or phrases? Any quirks? Keep a running list of these things. That way, they won’t be forgotten, and then we can turn to them when we write our character biographies. Let each character be his/her own unique personality.

So, give ’em some quirks. Make each character his/her own unique personality, then watch them jump off the page.

Source on Shelby Foote: Coleman, Carter and Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, Issue 151 Summer 1999,

Characterization: How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters in Fiction

All right, here comes my confession. During my early writing years, when I began writing fiction, I struggled with creating believable characters, particularly female characters.

Olivia d’Haviland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. The novel was written by Rafael Sabatini.

I erred in numerous ways, and it took me many years and much practice to hone my skill. Yet even as I write this, I’m still learning and honing. For me, of all the elements of fiction, good fiction, characterization is the hardest.

When characters are well-written, they’re three-dimensional. They seem to leap off the page. This doesn’t just happen, though. It takes lots of thought, lots of planning, and lots of mental “elbow grease.”

One key to creating these “living, breathing” characters is by getting to know them. Who are they? What motivates them to do what they do? Are their motives believable? What are their likes and dislikes? Where were they born? How old are they? What level of education do they have? Where were they educated? What events in their past influenced how they now behave? These are just a few questions we must ask when drawing our characters with words.

We don’t have to answer every question in our story, but knowing our characters’ backgrounds and what makes them tick is crucial if we want them to be three-dimensional instead of cardboard cutouts.

What’s the best way to get to know them? Write their biographies.

Must we write a biography of every character, major and minor? We can, but I’d concentrate on the major characters.

Is there a short way to do this? Yes, though it’ll still require some thought. First write a list of important questions about your characters, then go back and answer them. This will start you on the right road toward toward getting to know them.

These character questions also help us keep our story consistent throughout it. For instance, if we’re writing about a character named Mary and we forget her eye color, we can refer back to the “Mary Bio Questions” to find it.

A Few Questions for Our Characters

  1. Birthplace:
  2. Age:
  3. Nationality/Race:
  4. Height:
  5. Weight:
  6. Physical Build:
  7. Eye color:
  8. Hair color/Hairstyle:
  9. Shape of face:
  10. Father’s name/Occupation:
  11. Mother’s name/Occupation:
  12. Education:
  13. Religion:
  14. Personality:
  15. Admirable traits:
  16. Negative traits:
  17. Likes/Dislikes:
  18. Bad habits/vices
  19. Best thing that ever happened to them:
  20. Worst thing that ever happened to them:

This list, of course, can be expanded, and it’s something I recommend. If you haven’t already done so, try it. It’s well worth the effort and, in the long run, saves time on revision.

Characterization: How to Write a Believable Antagonist

Antagonists aren’t always villains. An antagonist can also be a situation, an animal, a government or institution, or anything the hero must overcome before achieving his/her goal. In this post, the antagonist I’ll be discussing is the bad guy. Without an antagonist, we have no conflict, and without conflict, we have no story.

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, Photo Credit: Npsaltos62

One of film’s most memorable villains is Tommy Udo, played by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. Who can forget that famous scene when Udo, a psychopath, shoves a lady in a wheelchair down a steep flight of steps to her death? He even laughs while he does it.

Villains should present serious challenges to the hero. He may even be superior to him in some ways, thus forcing the hero to struggle harder. For instance, the villain may be smarter or physically stronger than the hero, or perhaps he can be a Houdini-type—an escape artist.

Make your villains as loathsome as Udo, but keep them believable.

Two Tips For Believable Villains

1.Let him justify his actions. Give him believable motivations..  Readers may not think his motives are justified, but he does. Get inside his head to  understand where he’s coming from. Is he greedy, vengeful, a bully? Why is he this way? Perhaps he was born into poverty or was picked on when he was a child.

2. Soften him up. Although he may be a bad guy, show a few positive traits.  Perhaps he’s a true gentleman around the ladies, or maybe he has a great sense of humor or works hard. If he’s too soft, however,  readers will sympathize with him, and this is something we do not want.

Villains are fun to write. Make them evil, yes, but also believable. I hope these two tips prove helpful.

Characterization: How to Create Believable Protagonists

While growing up in the 1960s I, like most boys, read lots of comic books. Batman was my favorite superhero. I never much cared for Superman, however, because he was just…well…not someone I could believe existed. At least Batman, behind his cape and cowl, was an actual person named Bruce Wayne.

Even so, our novel’s protagonist (hero) must be believable and someone with whom readers can identify and care about. In other words, they should be likeable. Also, introduce them in the story’s first scene.

Give the protagonist weaknesses and flaws. They can be major flaws, such as having them be workaholics, or minor flaws. For instance, in the series Columbo, Peter Falk’s character is usually unkempt and almost always wears a raincoat, even when it’s not raining. His sloppy exterior, though minor, is a flaw. Yet, we all love him and pull for him to find the murderer.

Another way to make our protagonists believable is to have them break a stereotype. This also adds more reader interest. One example would be an athletic hero, a former Olympic boxing champion who grew up in the slums and is now a detective. He enjoys reading highbrow novels and can quote Shakespeare. Have him do something likeable in his first scene. For example, let him deliver roses from his garden to one of his elderly neighbors before he deals with a homicide. Then, as the story progresses, bring in other positive traits. Does our champion love children? Does he take care of an autistic son? Such positive traits can create subplots and help deepen our story as well as our protagonist. And they make him likeable.

Once again, don’t make our hero perfect. Imperfect but likeable—that’s the key.