Use Character Quirks to Grab Readers’ Attention

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.

Tell me your opinion: Have you given your protagonist any quirks?

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About Neal Abbott | @NealAbbott

Along with the recently released novel Bloodhound, Neal Abbott is the author of three non-fiction books: The Gatsby Reader, Think Like a Writer, and My Plans for World Domination. Neal has also authored four novels Siciliana, Drover, Prince, and Pietas. These will be launched throughout the rest of the year. He is the content editor for the creative writing blog A Word Fitly Spoken.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Neal!

  2. And that you for using my post. I hope your readers find it useful.

  3. Wow, that really does give the character uniqueness and opens a place to add backstory. Brilliant! I love it. 🙂

  4. I found this useful! One of my protagonists in 3 Through History is a distance runner. This is his escape from the frustrations brought about by his clumsiness with women. On three occasions, he sets off for the horizon in his distance treads in order to run off the sting.

  5. @aqua – that sounds like an interesting use of combining a physical trait with action, and with a point for the story. great!

    @simplicity – i am so glad you liked it. thanks for reading and for the great comment.

  6. A mental or personality quirk can work just as well as a physical one. In my WIP, one of my antagonists speaks in a very uneducated way, which is meant to symbolize his isolation from and jealousy of other kids.

  7. nice article neal, thanks! made me think a bit deeper about applying that aspect more consciously, and consistently 😉

  8. Great post. I like the idea of symbolic quirks. Nice add to the story.

  9. Adan and Denise, thanks for your comments, and thanks for reading.

    Greg, I agree. I sometimes double the physical with mental or at least psychological quirks. And thanks for commenting.

  10. Loved reading this post. Very helpful since I’m still doing my characters. The quirk doesn’t necessarily have to be a flaw or something negative, right?

  11. This is a post with a difference. During the past 18 months I have studied many writing blogs and this is the first one I’ve found which covers this particular topic. Thanks so much for adding another layer to my writing. It’s subtle but a very useful issue to discuss.

  12. Thank you! In critiquing others writing, I’ve always struggled with advice in dealing with flat main characters other than back story ideas. This really helps flesh out the reason why back story alone isn’t enough.

  13. Thank you! In critiquing others writing, I’ve always struggled with advice in dealing with flat main characters other than back story ideas. This really helps flesh out the reason why back story alone isn’t enough.

  14. Brilliantly put, thank you! I particularly appreciate your recounting of your own “character quirks as symbols”. Studying Literature I often have to analyse deliberate choices made by writers. Mostly, I’m rather skeptical. I find myself wondering if the symbolism (specifically in modern works) isn’t just generally my own constructions imposed on books.

  15. Exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks for the post,Neal.

  16. That is brilliant. My protagonist has a difficult and highly unknown past, the only indication of her trials are the scars she sports. This lets me tell her past as a series of scar stories. It also shows she has survived a lot.

  17. My protagonist has two quirks the first he has before the story, the second he gains early on in the first novel of the series.

  18. In my new book, one of the main characters (Su’Ma) has three tribal slashes across his right cheek. It’s his third-level hunter mark.

  19. In one of my books, my main character can’t cook anything, and is constantly on the move. I don’t think restlessness is a quirk, but if it is, it is her biggest quirk.

  20. I loved this, thank you 🙂 It gave me a lot to think about.


  1. […] are a great way to symbolize theme. Pretty simple, […]

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