Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Little Things People Do

...if we listen carefully enough, people will reveal themselves to us by the things they say. The same is true if we are attentive to the little things that people do - a gesture, a quirk, a habit.

I have since learned to pay attention to the ways people make their way through the world, to the ways that people speak without words. I notice the way Stephanie, a shy student of mine, shakes her foot like the tail of a rattlesnake when she's nervous. I notice the way Brock, a writer friend, fills in the silences by softly singing rock and roll lyrics, as if music is always playing in his head, just below the surface of any conversation and almost every thought.
~ Bruce Ballenger



Photo Source (christophersmark.wordpress.com)

This is my area of weakness as a writer. Dialogue is a key component of our characterization - we know that. Idiosyncrasies are an equally important part of characterization. However, it's an area I pay little attention to in the real world. According to Ballenger, though, there is a wealth of good stuff to be had by paying attention to the behaviors of others.


I thought about this in regards to my own family.

When he's thinking about how to handle a situation or what to say to someone, my husband always moves his mouth in silent conversation, rehearsing what to say. But he has no idea he does it.

My oldest son subconsciously mimics the behaviors and attitudes of my husband.

My daughter has been a puppy for the last year and a half, paws up in every photograph.

My middle son says touche in response to everything and refuses to sleep without a fan blowing on him.


The familiar fiction writer's adage - "show don't tell" - applies to non-fiction writers, too. People, whether real or imagined, have much to show us, often unwitting revealed, not only in what they say, but in more subtle things: the disorder of a desk, the unearthly bounce of a long slide, the choreography of chairs (Ballenger).

What are some quirky habits you've added to enhance a character's personality?

25 comments:

Jen said...

How fun!!! This weekend I'm going to the zoo and I really need to focus on dialogue, it's something I'm lacking in my stories, more or less I leave it out because I'm not good at it, but dialogue is needed so I'm taking the plunge!

Hmmm quirks... I'll have to think on this one!

DL Hammons said...

My female MC bites her lip a lot. Another jingles change in his pocket to the point where it becomes annoying. :)

Palindrome said...

This is hard for me as well although I'm pretty good at noticing those things in others when I'm talking with them. I'm just not very good at translating that into writing...yet. :)

salarsenッ said...

Ooh, I have the fan blowing kid, too. What is up with that?

I love adding food quirks to my characters--favorite flavors or ones they just despise. It can be the way they eat or their lack of eating. There's a gamut of possibles.

Jaydee Morgan said...

One of my characters runs a hand through his hair when he's upset or stressed while another tends to shift slightly from foot to foot.

I like giving my main characters individual quirks - and most of these I pick up from real people that I know.

Janet Johnson said...

When the love interest in my MS gets angry, her right eye twitches.

Great post. Amazing how many different quirks there are out there.

Natalie said...

I have a character with a really weak stomach. He throws up whenever he smells something gross. He's a big tough 6th grader, so that makes it more funny.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

My character would figdet with her charm bracelet whenever she was uncomfortable, worried, nervous. But then she lost it.

Laura Marcella said...

My husband has to sleep with a fan blowing, too! Before we got married and lived together, he slept with a fan on all year. Yeesh! But I only allow it in the warm months, lol. It's too cold in the winter for a fan!

I'm working on character developments for my WiP. You've given something to think about, thanks! Quirks are always fun to make up. :)

Bane of Anubis said...

The thing about people watching is that lots of people don't have obvious quirks/traits -- however, the ones who do are definitely interesting (scary?)

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

I love the quirks, they add so much personality. My MC's are developing more because it will be key to the story. Their quirks will set them apart from each other...and that's all I can say >:)

KarenG said...

It's those little things that make all the difference! As I'm going back in to revise, my characters will *tell* me bits and pieces that make them come alive. Excellent post! We all need to be reminded about the details!

Heather said...

This really made me stop and think about my characters quirky habits, thank you! I may have to add some in...

Karen Lange said...

I need to work on this. Thanks for prompting me!
Blessings,
Karen

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Aw, great post #2. Sorry I haven't been blog hopping this week. #Shannonfail.

I gave my MC one of my idiosyncrasies. She tugs out her eyelashes when she's nervous or stressed. It's one of the few things her and I have in common.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post Shannon.
You reallymade me think about the habits I'd given my characters.

My MC bites her lip. She also screws her nose up when she is nervous.

Jemi Fraser said...

Until I noticed it, all of characters were taking deep breaths and sighing. I've since diversified their quirks :)

VR Barkowski said...

My MC bites the inside of his cheek and runs his fingers through his hair when he's nervous. Another character is shy and can't hold eye contact. I have a female character who "twists" her wedding band back and forth even though she's divorced and no longer wears it.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I haven't thought much about quirks, but now I have something to think about :) I want to see one of those puppy pics!

Jody Hedlund said...

I really do try to find those unique "quirks" for each of my MC's and for minor characters too. I don't want them too noticeable, though. I want those details to add depth to the story, but like your husband doesn't notice the quirk, I don't want my readers to be taken out of the story to notice things my characters are doing. Hope that makes sense!

Patti Lacy said...

Oh, Shannon, SO KEY and what distinguishes ho-hum writing from zippy stuff.

Hmm. My latest character sucked her thumb as a girl and as an adult rubs it against her other thumb, against soft material...when she is upset, really, really happy.

My crit partners are liking it as long as I don't overdo it and make sure to have it most "happen" when OTHERS observe her as you wouldn't record a semi-unconscious thing like this.

GREAT advice, girl!

Oh, yeah. Forgot to say someone near and dear to my heart had (HAS!) this habit. So forewarned means forearmed around a writer, right???

Love you, girl.
P

laurapauling said...

I usually add something they are interested in or something they do when they are nervous - but I'm drawing a blank right now for an example, probably b/c I'm plotting. :)

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Just wanted to drop back in to let you know I have an award for you and to wish a very happy weekend :D

Margo Berendsen said...

Ah yes observation is such an important part of being a writer. I KNOW that, but I keep forgetting it (thanks for the reminder). I get so wrapped up in my things I forget to really pay attention to people - think about their words, how they put them together, how they move their hands or other idiosyncracies. I think it's important to be really observant with regards to making your settings realistic, too.

For the longest time I had to have a fan, too! Only just recently, when I was visiting a place absolutely fanless, did I discover I could sleep just as well with the radio tuned to white noise!

Chewing the end of a lock of hair - something I've added to a character. And then I have one character who gets backaches when she's stressed instead of headaches.

prashant said...

it's something I'm lacking in my stories, more or less I leave it out because I'm not good at it, but dialogue is needed so I'm taking the plunge!
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