Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Quirks and Style Make the Character

How does one create a character that is believable and memorable? I would humbly submit (chuckle, snort), that it is one's quirks that make a memorable character—just as it is these same characteristics that make we humans who we are. By quirks, I don't just mean our hinkiness: I mean our mannerisms, our speech patterns, the things that matter to us, our "personal style," our pastimes and habits. All of these things and more, like a clay sculptor adding layers to his creation, build upon a memorable—or simply a useful—character.

Here's an example: Joan was an average American: she did not distinguish herself in school nor in taste. She had no major gift for conversation, limiting her comments to what she saw on TV last night and what she and her friends bought when they went shopping. She drives a white sedan that resembles every other white sedan on the road. She dresses in a style that makes her blend into the crowd: sweat pants, T-shirt, and athletic shoes. Her medium length, light brown hair she has twisted up on the back of her head and secured with a hinged comb. She wears tiny diamond studs in her ears. She is not a beauty; neither is she ugly. If you met her on the street, your impression of her would evaporate like a drop of water on a griddle.

However, Juana, while also no beauty, couldn't be any more dissimilar.

"What you lookin' at, gringa? Haven't you ever seen anyone roll a smoke before?" Juana is making herself a professional-looking roll-yer-own, which she will spark with a lighter that looks like a gun. On her bare left arm is a tattoo with a heart that reads "Mamacita;" on her right bicep is a chupacabra. You know it's a chupacabra, because the word is incorporated into the design. She wears tight jeans, stiletto heels, and a black leather motorcycle jacket is draped on the back of her captain-style bar stool. Her head is encased in a red bandana tied in the back, and her hoop earrings are so big they reach her shoulders. Although her hair is hidden, her makeup is chola-style, and her lipstick matches the bandana. She has enhanced a mole near her left eye.

Mr. Stripeypants in his stronghold (B. Morgan photo).
"Well, come on; sit down. I don't bite, bitch," she growls. She takes a deep drag of her fag and pops out a smoke ring. "That's right—beauty and talent. Now, what are you sniffin' around here for? I don't got all friggin' day." After she's heard your story, Juana leaves, in a hip-twitching display that makes all the male bar patrons howl, mounting her Harley and taking off in a deafening roar.

My thought is that when you are creating a character he must have something that makes him stand out from all others. Maybe she takes off her glasses every time she looks you in the eye. Maybe she dresses in bright colors and a flurry of ruffles. Maybe he pees outside whenever possible. He displays his nerves—or his boredom—by flipping his buck knife into a nearby log. Maybe he stutters or picks his pimples; maybe he whistles when engrossed.

It's the terms of endearment we use with our loved ones, Poopsie, the pet names we give our pets. Our cat has a name, but we call him Big Kitty, or B.K. for short; Big Galoot, because he weighs seventeen pounds, Mr. Stripeypants, because he's a tabby; Biggus Cattacus, and His Royal Hineyness, just because. It's the goofy songs we make up while on a road trip, the personal adornments we choose (or don't choose) that define us for others. It's mannerisms, speech patterns, thought patterns, presence, and a whole lot of other small details that distinguish  us from each other—the same being true for characters.

This is not to say that choosing vanilla over Boom-Choco-laco-laco-boom! has no value. Some characters must blend in. When that's what you want, they won't be flamboyant. Maybe they'll be like Joan.

What are some of the quirks of your favorite characters? I'd love to hear from you.
© Beth Morgan