Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Character Quirks or Flaws That Go Awry


"Enough already!"


This is what I said in total exasperation by the time I finished part of the latest edition of a "knitting" mystery. The main character's quirk or flaw is her love of coffee. This is not a problem in itself but the author mentions coffee, caffeine, strong blends, empty mugs, empty thermos, etc, over and over again ad nauseum. It became so frustrating and annoying to read line after line about coffee that it interfered with the enjoyment of the story.
 
 As a whole, this cozy series is good, gives the reader lots of information about knitting, and the author has developed the other characters very well. However, this obsession by the author to emphasize the main character's love of coffee is ruining the character for me so much so that I don't care if her love life has hit the skids. (My guess is he can't stand her coffee breath and jittery nerves but is afraid to tell her.)

Every writer has heard and read that giving your characters flaws makes them more real and more interesting to the reader. I agree. One of my YA characters wants contacts because her glasses keep sliding down. I've made a note to check the "ad nauseum" factor during revision in the hopes that one day one of my readers won't say, "Enough already!"

What are your thoughts about character quirks or flaws? Have you seen them done to death in novels? How do you know when your reader gets it and no longer needs to be reminded?

18 comments:

  1. I do like when a character has a quirk that makes him unique and makes him pop off the page. I agree, it makes the character feel real. But overdoing it will make me close the book and never return. I tend to think readers are smarter that we give them credit for. (Sometimes, I think that "we" includes not only writers, but editors, publishers, booksellers, parents, teachers... :-) ) I like to go with the rule of three in most things so I would be hard pressed to use a quirk more (or less) than three times. I would also want to make the quirk important to the plot as well.

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  2. Less definitely is more with quirks, I think. It's good for characters to have them, but they can't be defined by their quirks. It also bothers me when a quirk is mentioned repeatedly but has no effect on the story at all; as Andrea said above, the quirk has to have some importance in the story.

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  3. that's very very funny. I always worry about not putting in enough, but I've noticed when I read a book, it only needs to be mentioned 2 or 3 times and I get it.

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  4. Andrea, Anna, and Tamara, I agree that mentioning it a few times is more than enough. When readers are presented with a character right from the beginning they tend to remember what they are told. I know I do.

    I also like what Andrea said about it being important to the story otherwise it's just unimportant fluff.

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  5. In a recent book I read, the MC had a habit of chewing the inside of her cheek. Once or twice would have been enough, but it happened over and over. I know what you mean by being distracted these kinds of things if they are overdone...

    BTW, Catherine, you were the winner of my giveaway, Bear Snores On! I can't wait to send it to you. If you'll leave an email contact over at my place, I'll be in touch to get your mailing address :-) www.kendaturner.blogspot.com

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  6. I think you're so right! It's something to be conscious of. I've been careful with my current MC because she hums when she's nervous. I don't want to go overboard with it, so I'll pay special attention to it through edits.

    Great post!

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  7. Thanks, Janna, I'm paying close attention to mine from now on also.

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  8. This post made me smile. By happenstance, a character of mine loves toast--not a big deal--it's just her favorite food. One of my critique partners wrote the comment "great character quirk!" on her weekly critique, and I got a little paranoid...do I need to bring that into the story more? Will mentioning it too much be annoying?

    Thanks for the fun/informative topic :)

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  9. Kenda, tried to post last night but it wouldn't post. The screen was flickering so not sure what was happening. Tried again this morning and everything is fine! Thanks again, I'm so excited about winning!

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  10. Good point Catherine. I think the mistake that some writers make is that they hammer a certain quirk home without connecting it to a larger issue. A character that chews their nails is interpreted as stressed or nervous. Maybe it's even a habit.

    As the author you have to realize that you aren't just giving the reader a cliche attribute to attach to the character. You are saying that the character gets so stressed/nervous that they engage in self destructive behavior. So play to the issue, not the symptom. Next time the character gets stressed they start pulling out patches of their hair. As a reader you give me more ways to connect to the character.

    I don't believe in having quirks just to have them. It makes your character two dimensional.

    Great topic Catherine!

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  11. I would completely agree that it could be distracting and annoying.

    I hope I don't do that. But I actually think I'm the opposite, I dont' think I have any real glaring quirks for any of my characters. Shoot, maybe that's my problem!

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  12. Kelly, I like your statement I don't believe in having quirks just to have them. I'm going to keep that in mind.

    Kimberly, I don't think that would be a problem-if all characters wind up having quirks, yours not having any will be a quirk in itself!

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  13. This post gave me a lot to think about. I have a mystery revision coming up, and I think in the earlier draft I have overdone a mannerism to the point of giving away the mystery. It's such a delicate balance. Thanks for the good insights!

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  14. Thank you, Elizabeth, for stopping by and commenting:)

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  15. I mentioned something to do with character quirks in my post this morning.

    In a total read over of the ms, it should be obvious to the writer when he/she has gone overboard. I think once you've established what the quirk/flaw is, there's no need to beat the reader of the head with it. As my writing coach used to say, always assume that the reader is more intelligent than you are. With that in mind, I also have to assume that he/she will remember stuff about my character after they've read about them for 50 pages or so.

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  16. "always assume that the reader is more intelligent than you are." Excellent advice, Joy!

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