Aidan Quinn, Benny & Joon, Buster Keaton, Character development, Character traits, Elizabeth Fais, I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles), Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mediator series, Meg Cabot, Princess Diaries, Quirky Quotient, The Proclaimers, Vanished series
I’m in the “first-draft phase” of my current project, so I thought it would be a good idea to blog about the process. To create a log of reminders for myself when the next project rolls along, and hopefully benefit others who are blazing through their first-draft.
For me, the first draft of a novel is as much about discovering the characters as it is about formalizing the plot. Don’t get me wrong, before I write the first sentence I have a list of each character’s traits and flaws. But that’s only a two-dimensional view of the person. Their wholeness comes to life in the writing.
Quirky = interesting
A person’s quirks are what endear us to them, and make them memorable. Quirks can show up in how they dress, unusual habits, and how they interact with others.
A character’s quirks can affect the choices they make, and indirectly the outcome of the story.
At the beginning of a project, coming up with new and unique traits for each character can be a bit overwhelming. So I start with one simple rule:
Don’t be boring.
Quirks that Delight and Deepen Character and Story
For fictional characters to not be boring, they have to stretch beyond our every day patterns. To start the idea mill churning, it helps me to review stories where characters surprised and delighted me, and analyse what and how they created that affect.
If you’re looking for an author, Meg Cabot is the queen of quirky characters, secondary as well as main characters. Her Princess Diaries series is classic, as are her Vanished and Mediator series. But don’t stop with just books. Films are also a great resource for character studies.
One of my favorite films for quirky characters is the 90’s comedy/drama Benny & Joon. It’s a story about Benny, an older brother (Aidan Quinn) who cares for his mentally disturbed younger sister, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson). Doesn’t sound like a good time, does it? But wait. Enter eccentric young Sam (Johnny Depp), who models himself after Buster Keaton, and the story lights with genius.
Sam uses a steam iron to make grilled cheese sandwiches and a tennis racket to mashed potatoes (wish I’d thought of both of those quirks!).
His quirky habits endear him to Joon, helping her break out of her extreme dysfunction that often manifested in alarming ways.
The video below (featuring the song by the Proclaimers) includes some of the classic scenes from Benny & Joon. Johnny Depp’s physical comedy is hilarious.
Making It Fresh
Analyzing the successful quirkiness of characters in other stories is a jumping off point to brainstorming ideas for my own characters. The goal is to make my character’s quirkiness fresh and real. Here’s a few tricks:
- Turn a trait on its head or switch it around. Do what’s least obvious. Johnny Depp’s impersonation of the pirate captain, Jack Sparrow, is a great example of turning typical pirate traits on their head.
- Give a character a hobby that clashes with society’s view of their trade or line of work. For example, a welder who creates his own line of feminine bath products under an assumed name, or a concert musician who competes in monster truck rallies.
- Combine unexpected character traits. Such as a Navy Seal who’s afraid of spiders, but wrestling with bears is a rollicking good time.
- Cast against type. This comes from the film industry, and is shorthand for “give us something unexpected.” Such as a mail man who’ s actually a recruiter for an intergalactic assassin agency.
- Get wacky. Have fun with it!