06 July 2013

The Character Quirk

There are books and blogs out there that suggest adding a quirk to a character to enhance it and make it seem more real to the reader. This is good advice, but it shouldn’t stop there.

To me, this is my big important thought: BE CAREFUL WHAT QUIRK YOU CHOSE!

This might seem like someone being sensitive, but trust me when I say that psychological triggers are the peskiest of problems to find and explain. Just because something is in the news a lot or because it is the latest fad diagnosis from the celebs on TV, it DOES NOT mean that it becomes fair game in a book or story without extensive research.

Okay, so what set me off on this tangent, you might ask, because it doesn’t have the normal playful feel of my usual posts?

A writer I know emailed me about their latest work in progress and mentioned that the quirk for the support character and narrator is hoarding. They were treating it like a funny little thing. This hit one of my triggers. My friend didn’t realize I have a history of hoarding in my family going back at least two generations, possibly more, or that I’m dealing with clearing out one family member’s hoarded stash. Also, the writer treated hoarding as something cutesy or weird, not a mental health issue.

Yeah, it set me off.

Another writer friend started talking about her problems with being a little scattered. In an attempt to make a joke, she said dementia is not far off. Again, major trigger for me, dealing with a family member with such a mental illness. I don’t think I was as harsh with this writer, but they were taken aback by the vehemence in my voice when I suddenly snapped at them about what they said.

In both instances, the writer in question was not meaning to say anything wrong. They just chose a word from their lexicon without taking its full weight into effect. The same goes with character creation and research. Just opening the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5 for those that recognize it) and pointing to a page without follow up research is bound to create angry readers and angrier negative comments.

Let’s look at a different instance. The movie Rain Man has Dustin Hoffman playing an autistic savant. The role was wonderfully acted, with a realistic portrayal of the mental illness. Mr. Hoffman didn’t go into the role just thinking to play it off the cuff. He worked with the men who inspired the role for the writer and he did research to understand just what and how the mental illness affected people.

Be certain what you’re picking, research it, and talk to people who have experience with it. I’d never paid attention to the problems of the elderly, until I started dealing with them directly. Now they are a sensitive spot that can really turn me into a demon if someone treats it as just this funny or stupid quirk. NEVER treat a mental illness as just something funny or quirky. Otherwise, you might find your reader’s demons coming after you.


  1. Great points - as someone with a mental illness, I often get frustrated by how mental health problems are portrayed, especially by TV and film (I haven't noticed it so much in books, but I know that's down to my choice of reading material, rather than a lack of dodgy portrayals in literature!). Even TV shows with supposedly high production values - I'm thinking of Eastenders and Coronation Street in particular, 2 of the most viewed programmes in the UK - tend to be unrealistic. Characters with moderate symptoms of depression suddenly turn into psychopathic killers, someone's anxiety is magically cured once the storyline has run its course, people get residential care immediately and are "normal" (i.e. have no signs of their mental illness) when they return from treatment... Makes me wish I lived in soapland!

    1. Living in Soapland would be great. Kill someone, sleep with their spouse, and not have any consequences. Have a mental break, then two episodes later be head of your house/clan.

      You're right. TV and Movies do have a harder time keeping things... coherent. But this is also why I believe in beta readers and research. :)

      Thanks for the comment

  2. This is a totally valid point... one I've thought of a few times, too (and might even be guilty of). My biggest issue is when characters seem to easily overcome issues that have derailed and devastated families and lives. I have a character dealing with PTSD in my latest book -- a combat vet. I hope that I'm close enough to that experience in my own life to be able to portray that realistically. For my character though, it's not a "quirk" at all - it's a focus (as I believe it is for anyone truly suffering from PTSD).