5 Tips for Developing Character Quirks

This post was adapted from an Instagram post I made all the way back in 2022. I find myself pointing people to it over and over, so I thought it was high time to adapt it into a blog post for easier reference–and expand it for the new format!

One of my most popular blog posts is about five details that help bring characters to life. The first item on that list is character quirks, which I wasn’t very good at when I first wrote that post. While I’m still not a character quirk expert, I have learned a lot over my past couple of WIPs. Hopefully some of these tips and tricks I’ve learned will help you too!

First, let me define what I mean by “character quirks.” These are the little habits your character has in how they interact with the world around them and with other characters. Things they might not even be aware of, but that bring them to life and make them feel like real people by not only adding general flavor to their interactions but also communicating their deeper character traits through these smaller details. These are the little details you might pick up on to discover that a character is anxious or confident or was a musician or… whatever. As with character voice, these are the details that spring from deeper truths about your character, but these are the physical details vs. those that come through in the way they speak and describe things.

1. Start with the basics

Some of the easiest quirks to develop will be those that spring most directly from who a character is: their goals, motivation, confidence level, outlook on the world, etc. These are the easiest to draw from stereotypes or inherent habits based on one’s personality. For example, confident characters are more likely to casually take up space while more insecure characters might close in on themselves; characters who are very driven to focus on their goal and nothing else might always beeline through a crowd, while more easily distracted characters may find themselves talking to half the people along their route before they reach their destination; etc.

These core elements of your character can give you a starting point, but they may be only that. Knowing that your confident character is likely to take up more space than the shy one doesn’t tell you how the confident character takes up space or how the shy one hides in plain sight. The confident character might stand with her hands on her hips, have better posture, always put a leg up on a piece of furniture while she’s talking, sit in places she’s not supposed to, invade personal space, move around a lot, engage with every element of the setting around her, etc.; the shy one might slouch, curl up in a ball or keep her legs crossed when sitting, hide her hands in her sleeves, hide behind her hair, keep to the corners of the room, be very still through scenes, sit under blankets more, keep furniture between her and others in a room, etc. (And which quirks your character takes on will likely be influenced by other elements of their character, as well, including their appearance and choice of clothing, sense of propriety, general history and previous relationships, etc.)

By looking at specific examples of how people behave when they see themselves or others a particular way, and taking the rest of your character into account around that, you can start to piece together quirks for your character.

2. Look at their background

Background can influence quirks based on other things, but it can also be a starting place in itself. For example, a character with a lot of experience in law enforcement will have very different quirks from a character who grew up in a cushy middle-class neighborhood. Someone with law enforcement training might always be watching for suspicious activity, while someone used to safety might only seek out the nearest clothing store.

A character’s background can influence their bearing and posture, willingness to try certain new things, what they do or don’t notice about people and/or their surroundings, etc. For example, the daughter of a seamstress or tailor might be very aware of the fashion choices of those around her and be able to glean a lot about someone based on how they dress; a thief may be very aware of security cameras or watchmen anywhere they go; a nobleman or politician may always be watching out for ways they can influence people in conversations and stay on their good side; etc.

Your character’s background can affect many aspects of their present character, and quirks are no exception. Have fun tapping into the goldmine of backstory when considering your character’s quirks!

3. Borrow from friends

Real people are full of quirks, and while you obviously don’t want to turn your characters into copies of people you know or be rude in your portrayal of their quirks, you can borrow traits from friends here and there–especially the positive traits.

A number of the character quirks present in Calligraphy Guild were borrowed from people I know. For example, bringing everything back around to God, giving off protective vibes without really trying, getting over an argument before you know it’s been resolved, etc. I mixed and matched, finding that certain characters were suited to quirks from multiple people, and multiple quirks from the same person were better suited to multiple different characters.

If borrowing quirks from friends seems awkward, you can also draw from yourself! This is a little trickier because it’s harder to be aware of your own quirks sometimes, but working to notice these things–or asking others to point out your quirks–can be another way to gather ideas for character quirks and make use of them as they suit your characters.

4. Practice observing

Friends aren’t the only people you can observe for quirks–movies and TV shows are great to observe, too. By noticing how actors play their characters and what quirks they give them, you can get a great idea of how to endow your own characters with fitting mannerisms. For a somewhat extreme but thus easy-to-observe example, the main character of the show Perception is a paranoid schizophrenic professor; he carries a messenger bag with him everywhere, but instead of carrying it by its strap across his body he always clutches it to his chest. A viewer could easily assume that 1) he’s concerned about the bag or something out of it being snatched, so he wants it close, and 2) it may be comforting to clasp an object close and keep one’s arms close to the body (common insecure body language). It’s a quirk that reveals something about the character.

You can also practice simple people-watching in a café, library, etc. You don’t necessarily have to use the exact quirks you pick up, but observing a range of possibilities can help inspire further ideas when you create and write new characters. Perhaps you notice someone fiddling with the cord of their earbuds in the library and this inspires you to give your character a nervous habit of rolling the chain of the necklace she always wears between her fingers.

5. Use Pinterest

Pinterest is such a useful tool for worldbuilding, character development, tone-setting, inspiration, etc., etc. I’ve picked out a lot of quirks for the characters of Lightning by looking at the Pinterest boards I built for them. Erika absolutely “makes eye contact with security cameras to assert dominance” (a quote pin from her board). I had several pins saved for Alaric that showed some sort of pressure against his palms (pressing a thumb against his palm, pressing his hands against a railing, etc.), so that became one of his anxious quirks. Because Pinterest is a visual medium, it’s especially good for figuring out quirks of body language, but text-based pins can also communicate quirks (like the security camera quote). If you’re struggling to develop your character’s quirks and you’ve created a Pinterest board for them, try studying the pins you’ve saved and looking for patterns!

There are my top five tips for developing character quirks. What have you found useful for developing character quirks? Which of these methods is your favorite?

Still feel like your character is lacking depth or uniqueness? Check out the Character Voice Questions worksheet to get at the heart of who your character is and how to communicate that heart!

4 thoughts on “5 Tips for Developing Character Quirks

  1. Fun post! This topic is something I’m thinking about as I edit my fantasy novel, especially as it relates to dialogue. I appreciated your point about paying attention to character quirks in movies/TV/etc. Favorite characters are often memorable due to their quirks and personalities, and it’s a great idea to analyze how and why that works.

  2. Another great post!! Character quirks are so fun. A common quirk I see is a nervous character always polishing their spectacles, and one of the most unique is one from the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, where the MC is always tugging at her eyelashes. I’d never thought of a character’s “vibe” and thought pattern as being a quirk, so this was very helpful in that respect especially! As always wonderful advice :)

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