Friday, June 04, 2010

How quirky is too quirky?

The lovely and talented Tawna Fenske, one of my critique partners, just critiqued a revised chapter of mine.

Her most used word? Ick.

The character is supposed to be icky, but not quite as over-the-top icky as I'd apparently made him. It reminded me of the cardinal rule: in character building, as in life, less is more.

Too many times we writers fall in love with a good thing, a gotta-be-a-sure thing. We're like sous-chefs let loose while the master is away. And like those in-progress chefs, we reach for the obvious and dump in a whole lotta of quirkiness.

We're also -- at least I can be at times -- a lazy tribe. We read a popular book, and we think, "Ha! So you take a quirky character, and you give him a sidekick, and maybe an Achilles heel, and voila!"

I've actually seen this happen. I love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series. The characters are so vivid and unique and -- yeah -- quirky. You've got a genius recluse detective and a man-about-town charmer sidekick/narrator, set in a brownstone that has a live-in chef in New York.

One day in a book store I picked up a detective mystery that looked promising. The jacket flap blurb reminded me of Nero Wolfe, so I bought it.

I got it home and started reading it, then literally threw it aside in disgust. No wonder it reminded me strongly of Nero Wolfe -- it was a slavish imitation of it, down to the in-house chef, the expensive hobby (tropical fish, I think, instead of orchids) and the man-about-town charmer sidekick/narrator. To compensate? The author upped the quirk factor.

Quirks stacked upon quirks do not an interesting character make. My rule: one quirky character per book, one quirk per quirky character. It can be a big quirk. It can be a hard-to-miss quirk. But it can't be lost in a sea of quirks.

Because, let's face it, real people just aren't that quirky. And real people will be reading my books to see if my characters seem real.

So now? I'm off to dial back the quirky/ick factor of my quirky/ick character.


Anonymous said...

This is a great advice: having too many quirks can make a character overwhelming. I hope you'll find the balance with your ms. :)

Mia said...

I definitely agree. Making characters unique and giving them a few quirks is one thing. Making them over the top, unrealistic, and annoying is another.

Most of the characters in my WIP are 'normal', but I do have one insane, creepy killer that belongs in the crazy house. Except he's too smart to stay behind bars. He'd probably figure out an escape.

Like Sandy Shin said, I hope you'll find the balance in your book :)

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

In my first MS I wanted my hero to be angry and hurt about a major event. Apparently I made him way too angry because my treasured CP said she hated him and if it was a real book she would have thrown it across the room and never picked it up again.

Obviously some revision was required.

So yes, I know what you mean about overdoing it. ;)

Cynthia Reese said...

Sandy, trying desperately to find the Dial-a-Quirk selector to ratchet it back down!

Mia, you have to have a worthy villain -- after all, if he's not the co-SGITR (smartest guy in the room), then what does the hero have for a challenge?

Karen, I know of what you speak ... sheesh. One person's quirky/creepy is another person's ick. :-)

Lydia Kang said...

I agree. Too many quirks make a story simply unbelievable. You are trying to entertain your reader, not irritate them or turn them away. Well said!

Linda G. said...

Heavens. You've got me wondering just how bad a quirk has to be for _Tawna_ to call it icky. ;)

Jen Chandler said...

I like the "sea of quirkiness" line. I had to laugh. This is some great advice! Keep the quirkiness down. Got it!

Happy weekend,

CKHB said...

I've tried to base a fictional character on a real person I know who has a billion quirks. (I think she cultivates quirks in lieu of developing an actual personality.) It doesn't work. She's just too annoying and over-the-top for me to translate to the page. Probably for the best! (Ick.)

Patty Blount said...

I'm with Linda... what does it take to make Tawna squirm?

Great post, though. You've given me something to ponder.

Elizabeth Ryann said...

Although the most irritating quirk to have? Is being one of those people who can't stop talking about how quirky they themselves are. And then listing the many boring things they do that they feel support that hypothesis.

Probably not the "ick" you were shooting for, though. :)

Roland D. Yeomans said...

The reader has to identify with the main character to some degree. He may have a lizard's complexion, but if he feels the isolation we all have felt in our teen years, we could still relate.

Blake Synder, author of SAVE THE CAT (a great book on screenwriting), says we authors are allowed one bit of "magic" or quirkiness. Not two. Not three.

Aliens who land on earth cannot be attacked by vampires and thus become alien vampires. Too much. Readers can't suspend that much belief.

You had a great post, Roland

Sarah said...

I'll be keeping that advice in mind!

Tawna Fenske said...

LOL, can't wait to hear you you de-ick the guy! :)