NaNoWriMo #18: Don’t Confuse ‘Quirks’ With ‘Characterization’

We humans are the sum of what we present to the world. 

We are ultimately defined by what we do, as much as how we are perceived, either by intention or omission.  Especially when there is something on the line, when courage or forgiveness or creativity or perception are involved.

Certainly there are inner dialogue and demons… which are absolutely essential to deep characterization.  In fact, the delta (engineering-speak for “difference“) between the two is the stuff of good storytelling and the grist of character arc

That said, even so, it is what the character does that ultimately defines their character.

As writers we strive to bring our characters alive on the page. 

There are three levels — three dimensions — of characterization: simply inserting a character into a story, at any level (this level, is, by the way, sufficient for background players and walk-ons)… the backstory and inner landscape that explains choices and demons… and what the character does, sometimes in spite of that backstory.

Quirks reside in none of them.  You can try to explain them away as second dimension issues of characterization, but at the end of the writing day a quirk is like the color of a car… it doesn’t define the car.  What’s broken in the car… now that’s interesting.

Characterization is one of the most challenging aspects of writing an effective novel.  It’s easy to err on both sides of the proposition: thin characterization, or over-characterization.

The former is often described as a flat, one-dimensional character.  The latter… a story that isn’t moving forward, with too little conflict.  Character-driven is fine… character-smothering (smothering the story, that is) isn’t.

The purpose of plot is to give the characters something to do, something to react to and make decisions about.  As such, plot becomes the catalyst for character.  This is a subtle but powerful insight, and it justifies all the spilled blood and tears about plotting.

Here’s the trap: the writer imbues the character with all sorts of surface traits, tics, foilables and choices. With quirks.  The way they dress, what they drive, how they talk, hygiene (or lack thereof), manners (or lack thereof), sophistication, preferences, tastes, prejudices, habits, bluster… and all of the other contrivances and socially-interfacing choices we humans make.

It may mean something, or it may be just a convenient contrivance.  Either way, quirks hardly ever ultimately define your hero or antagonist.

Quirks and personality skews aren’t enough. 

The characterization bar is higher than that.  Until you show us the third dimension of your major characters – how they behave and act when the heat is on — you haven’t done your job with them.

Because characterization is best illustrated — and most germane to the story you are telling — when it comes down to the choices the character makes when there are consequences hanging in the balance.  Those choices may or may not align with the quirks you’ve assigned them, but either way, they ultimately do define the character.

Bill Clinton lied to the Grand Jury and to the American public. So did Barry Bonds and every indignant politician who got caught with their pants down.  What is their true character?  They showed us by what they did when it counted. 

If your character is all surface quirks, with no inner diaglogue, no backstory, no linkage between those quirks and that backstory… if it’s all for show… then you’ve missed the boat, and the boat is named Opportunity.

Remember, your hero must be just that… heroic.  Doesn’t matter how many tattoos they have or how they wear their hair, if they smoke or not, if they have an accent or not, shave or not, if they take the bus or drive a Corvette (this choice seems to say a lot about some characaters) or not…

… your hero must exhibit courage, growth and nimble quickness of thought when it counts. What they do defines them.  They are heroic, possessed of integrity… or they are not.  Quirks don’t get you there.

This decision-level characterization — the third of the three dimensions of character — is essential, especially in the final part/act of your story.  Because it is here where they showcase their character arc — their growth — as their inner hero emerges.

Remember, your hero needs to be the primary catalyst in the resolution of the story.  In doing so, she or he makes choices, and it is the sum of those choices — not merely their quirks — that define the character.  A quirk never meant doodley-squat to how a story ends… decisions and actions do.

Thanks for offering up your comments and advice to fellow NaNoWriMo participants, as suggested in the previous post. 

Good stuff.  Just one quibble from me… if you rely on your characters to “take over” your story, allowing you to just follow them, you’re in trouble already. 

Because your character isn’t a writer.  And if they are, well, then it’s their story, not yours. 

And I have news for you… it’s always, it’s gotta be, your story to tell.  Your characters just live (or die) in it.

Such free-form, plotless meandering is not story engineering, and it almost always compromises story architecture.  That’s just shooting for a pile of 50,000 words and a challenging prose writing experience, one that will lead you deep into a corner you may have trouble writing yourself out of.  At least if you have plans for your manuscript.

That’s the NaNoWriMo I’m trying to help you avoid.  Rather, you have the chance to use NaNoWriMo as a means of developing and focusing on a story that works… and when it does finally work, structure and architecture will be there.

Stories are a “pay me now, or pay me later” proposition.  You get to choose, and the consequences of that choice are measured in time and frustration.

You do want it to work, don’t you?  Thought so.

Check out Page 54 in the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest.

You’ll find an article by me on how to end your story effectively.  It’ll be out there in time to impact your NaNoWriMo effort… which is why I mention it.

13 Comments

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13 Responses to NaNoWriMo #18: Don’t Confuse ‘Quirks’ With ‘Characterization’

  1. Thank you for that description of the difference between quirks and characterization. It’s why I don’t plan out my characters before writing – any quirk displayed on stage is usually something meaningful, the tip of an iceberg of backstory. I know what it means and four chapters later that will come up to bite the character in the rear.

    It also shone a light on how I describe my process. You’ve pointed out a pitfall that I haven’t run into for years. I didn’t even see it because it’s not there in my process.

    I’ve described my books often as character driven. I talk about the moment my characters go live. I can’t predict them from that point, only keep writing them consistent with who they are. Any attempt to force them against their nature usually blows up and turns into unreadably dull prose. They lose that sense of realism and intensity if I drag them off course.

    But I’m not passively letting them get away with wandering into a swamp of using the toilet, brushing their teeth and worrying about what kind of cat food to buy. Oh no. The other side of the story always must be there – the main conflict of the book.

    Character driven novels go nowhere if there isn’t sufficient conflict. That can be any of the types your lit professor talked about – man against man (other people), man against nature and hopefully running under all of it, man against himself. Those internal conflicts are what make the characters interesting when they go live.

    The difference between an overpowered Mary Sue/Gary Stu character and a powerful character is that you can write a Superman, but he will face an entire planetfull of Kryptonite. You can build the coolest ever Space Marines with the fancy power armor and super guns, develop all that backstory to a T… but you need to throw just one surviving Space Marine or at most half a squad up against an entire battalion of alien bugs whose natural armaments are nastier than that power suit.

    The other fun thing to do to Mary Sue or Gary Stu is start looking at consequences. Especially the negative consequences of all the happy heavy fun stuff she/he has. Oh boy. Irresistible to the ladies, is he? Well, how about three different chicks filing paternity suits while one of the babes didn’t even sleep with him, she stole his frozen sperm sample from a Space Navy barracks! That babe wants him dead, so his super cool better than most guys genes kid will get his high end military pension.

    And she’s not even the main villain, the bugs are.

    The bigger I build the character, the bigger I have to build the challenges. If it’s all to scale, it doesn’t matter how gosh wow over the top I get with anything. That just means I like to write big splashy sci fi epics, it’s flavor.

    Now, I always liked the big conflicts so I never really drove off the cliff into that plotless go-nowhere book. If I see a cool character emerge, I get this itch to whack him with as many interesting conflicts as I can. But you’ve pointed out how easy it is to happen if you don’t develop the setting and the conflict well enough to carry the theme of the book.

    The balance has to be against that protagonist. At that point his quirks are irrelevant. His character is what matters when the bugs ate his platoon and he could bug out into a happy polyamorous civilian life or he could go down into the nest and kill off the hive mind. I could kill him there and the story’s still good, as long as the hive mind goes down. Maybe the epilog is the babe with the sperm theft is telling her son about how his daddy died a hero.

    If you let the characters lead, you still have to get ahead of them and keep shooting till the shooting stops. Never give them an easy win unless it’s a trick leading to worse.

  2. Hi, I just wanted to say thank you SO much for your website! I found it just in time for my second attempt at NaNoWriMo (the first being last year when I thought I could start on Nov 1st with no idea what I was writing. Big fail….!)

    I am enjoying the planning and working out the characters immensely, and although I worry that I am planning the joy out of it, I’m seeing the BOOK, which is encouraging.

    Your current post on characters is going to help me enormously today, so thanks!

  3. This is a wonderful post and so timely for me! Just what I needed to hear as I contemplate the choices my main character is making. Thank you!

  4. THANK YOU for finally stating the truth–you cannot let your characters take the lead. Every time a writer tells me this I want to scream at them. If you’re going to let your characters lead, do it in the backstory notes you’re writing/making, NOT in the story itself. Huge waste of time to do it the other way around, and I am not into wasting time anymore.

  5. I read about your 3 dimensions of character in _Story Engineering_ last week. A particular scene in my story was eating my lunch, and as I read that chapter in your book, I realized immediately that I’d gotten the first and third dimensions mixed up. Very powerful, very useful concept—in writing and in life. Thanks!

  6. Wow – have you been reading my diary? My blog? I just posted about this today. My characters have taken over the stage in my head, but they won’t DO anything. I need a plot! This writing stuff is harder than it looks. 🙂

  7. No Plot No Problem.

    Oh, yes, there is. I’m thinking it means the writer doesn’t care for and seeks to avoid conflict at any level of life to include and maybe especially on the page.

    I’ve noticed, could be really wrong, but it seems a character driven story tends to focus on a lot of “hurten” material. The writer sends the invitation to the reader, “come let us enjoy human misery together. It hurts so good and goes no where.” Subtitle: Our demons won without a fight

    How can there be a plot if we think there is no purpose or meaning to life? It appears to me we only have plot when we or our hero, probably needs to be both, turn to meet the challenge. That “turning” is the FPP. Avoid the challenge and there is no plot. Have no challenge and there can only be well crafted emotional milling around.

    Source of plot. I think plot discovery is a no holds barred, don’t hold back throw down. For the writer who avoids conflict this can be explosive. My guess, we will come up with some wild scenarios when we really turn loose.

    Test run:
    A high powered political figure with a history of womanizing finds himself with a high class call girl with a razor blade in her mouth.

    Like I said, don’t hold back. We will find a plot when we find out what is important to us, what makes us angry, what makes us willing to fight.

    Remember the movie Rocky? What do you think it means when the entire audience stood in the dark save for the glow of the screen on their faces and applauded the beat down of the bad guy? Tell that San Angelo, TX crowd a story about the endless gray of long boring days laced only with constant tedium and see how it flies.

    Or, Tell them a story of the Nun discovered hiding three Jewish children during WWII who comes face to face with the enemy holding a dead soldiers pistol in her hand.

    Either we get in the ring or we don’t. Choose to avoid the ring and there will be no plot.

    When I pull a slice of life stunt on the page now, I consider it therapy. 🙂 But, I do have the good sense not to send it to a Romance editor at Dorchester or even letters to the editor at Psychology Today. Both publish goal oriented material.

  8. Thank you for ALL these posts! Appreciate them.

  9. @Curtis — LOVE your comment, and the passion behind. More of a guest post, really, so much value here… thanks for contributing to this conversation. L.

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  11. I’d love to know any suggestions you have for bringing characterization -outside- actions to the page. In the past I’ve taken almost a cinematic approach to writing because I disliked getting the narrative into the characters’ heads, particularly when writing third person PoV. I didn’t wish to put down the likes of:

    ‘Fear gripped Nancy.
    Stupid girl, she thought.
    She shouldn’t have turned down the dank alley when the red Corvette slunk down Woodward for the second tine in an hour.’

    Is there a more effective way to manage this?

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  13. Pingback: Is a Quirk Just What Your Character Needs? - Writingeekery