How do you add character to characters?

Quirks and tics, motivations and fears (can be said to) dictate a character’s behaviour. But how often do you remind a reader of these personality traits?
I’d argue it ought to be quality rather than quantity, and that referencing a tic or habit a number of times is painting-by-numbers if it doesn’t seem natural. So less of the constant sighs of impatience of someone with a low attention span.

(Of course, if it’s done successfully, you will fake the organic nature of a character trait.)

The Skywalkers’ shared failing is impatience. Anakin’s too keen to become a Jedi Master, and Luke takes off to rescue Han and Leia before he’s completed his training, and what happens? He loses his hand, and loses his Han.

Then, after being traumatised through his amputation and ungodly provenance, he has to build his own new lightsaber out of the cheque he received from his very bad Jedi healthcare plan. (Not really.)

Impatience is a major failing of the Skywalkers that feeds into the plot (in a good way). The incorporation of similarly subtle characteristics is better than constant sighing or ARE WE THERE YET type stuff.

You can milk a tic or quirk for humour too. In much literature and comedy, writers use the “rule-of-three” and the idea of call-backs, where they reference a previously made point.
Or there can be a set-up and a pay-off related to a quirk. And all-the-better if the quirk itself can seem like not-a-quirk at all.

If I could be so bold as to provide an example from one of my own works-in-progresseez:

A character explains his motivation for not trusting his psychiatrist. He says to the psychiatrist:

“Doctors have to do very well in school. They have to be very intelligent. Psychopaths are often highly intelligent too. A lot of doctors – particularly mind specialists like yourself – must be psychopaths.”

His psychiatrist talks about his qualifications and principles to try to get the character to open up. Finally, the patient is convinced to reveal his secrets.

But it turns out that this shrink IS a villain in the story after all.

Later on, while this same psychiatric patient is held at gunpoint by the psychiatrist-villain and his goons, he meets an astrophysicist, who has also been taken hostage by the psychiatrist.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, the patient says as they’re introduced to each other and thrown into a cell, but I don’t really trust astrophysicists.”
The psychiatrist roars at him to shut up.

Reluctance to trust people of high intelligence isn’t really a quirk you’d consider workable in that way. But we could argue that unless you have something as idiosyncratic as that, or a nervous twitch, you shouldn’t be explicit in putting your finger on it.
I mean, if a character is shy or untrusting more broadly, don’t use the words shy or suspicious.
Just show her being a wallflower, or checking the last dialed number on someone’s phone.
I’d suggest that each time you show any quirk – if you feel the need – you develop it a little bit, as above. And try to make for the story you’re telling.

Leave a Reply