Thursday, May 19, 2011

Something in his walk

I was sitting at the train station tonight waiting to pick my husband up from work, as I do every night, and as I sat there tapping my fingers in time to the song on the radio, I slowly became conscious that I was doing the same thing I always do- watching the stream of people pouring out of the gates and into the carpark, craning my neck for that first glance of him.

Before he gets close enough for me to see him, even when he's still a distant figure crossing the pedestrian bridge, walking above a stream of head-lit evening traffic, I recognise him. More than that, I see a dozen other men who fit his description- tall, wearing a suit, dark-haired- and I know at first glance that none of them are the person I seek.

It's not just me who can spot him from afar. Our toddler daughter can see him coming from a mile off, too.

So, how is it that we can identify him amidst a crowd full of others who look very similar?

I realised tonight that it's a combination of things I'm looking for- the way he carries himself, straight-backed; the way he walks, not needing to rush because the length of his legs takes him far with every step; the particular quirk of his haircut, the way the front stands up a little after a long day at work. It's also all the things other people do that he doesn't- one man tonight who was an otherwise close match kept reaching up to scratch his head as he hurried along. Another pushed between fellow travellers in his effort to reach the front of the pack fastest.

In short, I know him from afar because of everything he is, and everything he's not.

You know I'm getting to the relevant part of this soon, right? Because this is an important lesson for writers of fiction, too. Not that you'll necessarily have loads of opportunities to show your main character in a crowd, from a distance, but you'll need to make them stand out on the page nonetheless.

What small quirks make your characters recognisable to your readers, and different enough that they're memorable? And more importantly, have you made sure those quirks part and parcel of their personality? Do they mean something? It's not the uniqueness of the trait that makes it stand out- it's making sure that it's all part of a complex and complete character.

An example from above- my husband is 6'4", and his long legs can be hard to keep up with since they set a good pace. But that's not the only reason he doesn't need to rush when he's getting off the train- it's also in his personality to be measured and careful, and he's very rarely flustered or hurried. If he were a character in a novel, that whole bundle of physical and personality traits would speak volumes about him.

Do your characters walk or stand in certain ways? Do they rub a hand through their hair when they're under stress, or bite a thumbnail? Do they laugh out loud at random thoughts throughout their day, or frown unconsciously as they go about serious business? Do they squint up at rainclouds, check their watch habitually, tuck a stray hair behind their ear, fix their lipstick in the rear-view mirror?

These are all things that can be overused by writers, but if you get it just right- like salt, a pinch, not a tablespoon- you'll add a distinctive flavour that will allow your readers to feel like they know your characters personally, so well that they could pick them from a crowd.


  1. I find generally there's not enough space in a tight manuscript to worry about it that much. Though one main character I wrote had a burned face, so that was pretty distinctive.

  2. My husband is just that distinctive to me. ; ) I feel that characters who run their hand through their hair too often would be bald by the end of the books. Some quirks are used too often. FWIW, I've been know to over use quirks in my writing. (shaking head) I have to edit 3/4 of it out.

  3. I think it's just the opposite of what Rogue Mutt said.

    A tight manuscript does include character quirks. Quirks are a marvelous "short-hand" method of informing readers of a character's internals. Quirks appear when we're angry, nervous, flirty, frightened or even bored. Quirks are a way to SHOW, not TELL, the readers what's going on within the character. A manuscript full of "telling" is the opposite of a tight manuscript.

  4. Great post, Claire. For me, character quirks/habits are the essential bits that take a character out of stock and into reality.

    The best writers will put them in so subtly that you don't realize it but somehow begin to identify the character by those particulars. Much in the way you identify your husband by his walk without (usually) having to dissemble exactly WHY his walk is so distinctive. I can pick mine out of a crowd too, btw. He tilts his head just so and has a bit of an Al Pachino bob-and-strut thing going on. lol

  5. Lovely Claire - funny, DH is the one that waits for me at the train station. I ought to ask him how he picks me out.
    I love writing reams of first drafts that let me discover these things about my characters. Sometimes it's just something someone says. I remember an acquaintance mentioning that she couldn't stand dusted flour on her bread or buns and right away I thought, "neither does Austin!"

  6. I know my characters really well, but need to ensure that the reader gets to know them that well too :)

  7. @Rogue- a fully-fleshed character isn't ever a waste of words when done well.

    @Zan Marie- the balance is most certainly the challenge. A sprinkle, not a tablespoon, and always strongly linked to character development and motivation (g).

    @Susan- well said :)

    @Kristen- absolutely. Reading other authors who do it seamlessly and well is the best education on how to incorporate quirks the right way. I'm glad people will have the opportunity soon to learn from one of the authors who does it best of all (that's you, fwiw (g)). Love the Al Pacino bob-and-strut :)

    @Deniz- you should ask him! It could be instructive :) I really hate dusted flour on bread and buns, too. Good for Austin.

    @Trisha- that's the key, isn't it? Not only knowing all the quirks, but conveying them well.

  8. Great post, Claire.

    I really love reading characters when the author has been clever enough to make their quirks do double, even triple, duty, in that while they use the quirk to show *something* about the character, just what that something is, and its full meaning and impact, is not revealed until much later in the story (or turns out to be not quite what we expected) and thus the quirk becomes one of the many ingredients that keep us in suspense, and keep us turning the pages.

    Wish I was that clever!