Try to imagine Harry Potter without his scar, or Captain Ahab without his pegleg. Hard to picture, isn’t it? But now try to envision a story with a boy who has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead for no reason, or a man missing his leg with no explanation.
I remember my first Creative Writing class in college. The professor insisted every character have some physical quirk. I didn’t understand this and thought it unnecessary. Explaining my frustration, I said, “This guy over here has a pegleg, and that guy has an eyepatch. What am I doing? Writing a bunch of pirate stories?” That’s when he let me in on his little secret. The quirk must be part of the story or somehow symbolic.
Character Quirks as Part of the Story
Think of the examples given earlier. You can’t think of Harry or Ahab without their quirks because they are an indelible part of the story. Give your character an incredible physical quirk, so you can have other characters talk about it.
You know that info dump of backstory you want to put at the beginning, but know you can’t? Now is when you can leak out some of it. Have your main character ask his friends why the villain has a particular quirk. Then they can tell how it happened, and the past gets brought into the story in an interesting manner.
Character Quirks as Symbols
This is actually my favorite way to use quirks. Have the embodied uniqueness symbolize something about that character. In my latest novel, Prince, my antagonist suffers from gout. Like his achy joints, he is stiff and inflexible. His gout symbolizes his inability to change.
In my first book, Heirloom, my hero is double-jointed. It indicates his moral ambivalence. He can’t decide what to do when it comes to important decisions. His brother-in-law sells his soul to the devil, and in time, realizes what a bad deal his was. Shocking, I know. Immediately after the bargain he is seen without hair, even though he sported beautiful curly locks up to this point. A bit later, he and his wife discover the hard way that he has become impotent. (You may wonder what selling your soul to the devil has to do with baldness and impotency. Baldness in the Bible is often symbolic of open and public shame. It is as if something dreadful has been uncovered. Also, the man’s impotence shows the reader that he is completely powerless over his situation.)
Character Quirks in Combination
Optimally, quirks should be used in both ways in your novel. Simply put, never give a character an incidental quirk that has nothing to do with his personality or the backstory. Quirks can not only help your characters look and act unique, they can also add depth to personality and motivation to psyche.