What About the Cat? Or, Insert Quirk Here

We writers give our characters quirks and habits to make them relatable and different from one another. Fingernail chewing, smoking, polishing glasses, using certain expressions. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget about them while creating the plot.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Once the reader has absorbed that this one mangles paper clips and that one wears polka-dots, are further mentions of those quirks really necessary?

I think they are. Real people keep doing things like that, and we want our characters to be real. And it’s just sloppy writing to forget details. Besides, some readers are incredibly fussy. I remember reading a library book in which a certain character had a cat. The cat didn’t play an important role in the plot, but it was mentioned several times. Toward the end of the book, there was a fire in that character’s house and quite a lot of action around putting it out, making sure no one was injured, etc. But the cat was not mentioned. I have to admit, I may never have realized that, had not a previous reader made a marginal note, “What about the cat? Stupid author!” Readers notice details, even trivial ones.

So another editing pass may be in order. Along with tracking down typos and patching plot holes, add a quirks checklist. Insert characters’ habits, tics, pet phrases, and oddities at intervals throughout the text. And make sure not to mix them up.

But don’t overdo it. Sprinkle, don’t shovel. Aim for a happy medium between “Hey, what happened to the polka-dot bowties?” and “Geez, if I see another mention of paperclip abuse, I’ll throw this book at the wall.”

Fellow writers, do you give your characters memorable quirks? Have you ever forgotten about them in the course of perfecting the plot, or attached a quirk to the wrong character? Or as a reader, been annoyed at an author who did that?

42 comments

  1. Hi Audrey, Thanks for the subject. Well worth airing. I suppose it should be between a case of habits and quirks not being OTT but being UTT: under the top…There can be such a subtle difference! Again, it all comes down to taste…a reader of one of my books said that I used too many exclamation marks in the first two chapters, so he didn’t bother reading the rest of it. I found that hard to take but there were not too many by my standards, although I have rationed them carefully ever since. The same goes for the clearing of throats and the twiddling with hair, etc.,.,We writers have to be on our guard! Cheers.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I once had a writing teacher tell me after reading one of my stories that he felt like he’d just smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. Gah! (Apparently, my characters didn’t have enough to do so I kept having them light up. I didn’t do that again!)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great point. Characters can seem as real or as odious as the people we live or work with since for the reader the characters are alive (for as long as the reader is reading or recalling the characters). My excuse for not recalling such a character is the insidious character of Spring, tree pollen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great food for thought, Audrey! I have written stories and several early chapter books about a certain young girl, and she is quirkier in some than others. I think possibly she is so clear in my mind that I forget what the reader of each, individual piece knows or does not know!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Quirks are good! But I say don’t overdo it unless they’re involved in the plot. And, I think that to be most effective, the quirks must evolve naturally from the character. A calm, laid-back character probably won’t be torturing paper clips. lol

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You should ever lose track of the cat! But seriously though, I agree that attention to detail is important, although shouldn’t be over done. I have a character who always changes into her bright pink pumps and dons her second best wig when she goes out (we still haven’t found an occasion where she’d wear her best wig).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This happens in film too, right? Some major event occurs and we’re like, “Did you forget you carry a Leatherman around on your belt?” And when the director gets the character to whip out the pliers and untwist the locked cage’s rusty latch, we’re like, “Oh, cool, they remembered.”

    Of course, one hopes that the writing was good enough to have presented the foible or nuance such that we didn’t skip it in our attempts to find the “good” parts to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Cool blog post. Love the photo. Now I want to know what happened to that cat! “Sprinkle, donโ€™t shovel.” Quote of the day! Audrey, if I keep reading your blog I’m going to have to write a book!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, JeanMarie. That’s a photo of Zeke the Cat from many years ago.
      As I dimly recall, the cat in that book was indeed forgotten by its author, although it didn’t perish in the fire either.

      Like

  8. Excellent post, Audrey! I like quirky characters. It’s sometimes those qualities that make them memorable and help readers separate one character from another. It’s even more relevant if that odd personality trait or habit becomes relevant at some point later in the story. If, for example, a character is known for being thoroughly organized, maybe he/she finds an important object when evading a fire instead of the messy person who can’t keep track of anything.

    The reader who commented about the cat makes a good point. There are times when writers repeatedly mention some detail or object earlier in the story, almost as if flashing a spotlight on it. When it mysteriously vanishes without a mention, I will think, “Why did you keep pointing out those ratty old gym shoes when there wasn’t a payoff?” On a side note, I think the reader can get his/her point across without calling the author “stupid.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good point about making a character quirk contribute to the plot, Pete. And yes, it was rather rude of the reader to make that marginal note saying “stupid author.” And in pen, yet! But hey, I still remember it after a couple of decades. I’ll bet you never wrote anything like that on your students’ English compositions.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. lmao – that’d be me! ‘Oh no, how could you leave the cat/dog/budgie/pet snake to die????’

    On a more general note, I too think the little distinguishing characteristics have to be repeated. Readers only take in a small number of details at any one time so characters have to be built a little at a time, multiple times. Simply repeating the same thing about polka ties though, is not going to work. Those ties have to say something about the /personality/ of the character as well as their appearance. To me polka dot ties conjure an image of a fussy, slightly overweight gent with a comb-over. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I tend to chuck a few in when I’m first-drafting more as placeholders than anything else, unless one really sticks with a character, then I refine them in the editing run-throughs. ๐Ÿ™‚
    … that cat has the perfect ‘contented cat’ pose. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  11. … and what happened to the estranged wife? -When I first got a Kindle 8 years ago I read a few dire novels ( could they even be called novels? ). One main character’s estranged wife phoned at intervals to say they needed to talk; he said they would talk when ‘all this was over’. The novel ended with them not talking and the reader not meeting the wife or having any idea why they were estranged or what they needed to talk about. I mentioned this in my review and the author replied there would be more character development in the sequel! Needless to say I didn’t bother to wait and see if a sequel ever got written.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Perhaps the idea was to intrigue the reader with all the unanswered questions. As you say though, at least some of them should be answered, and character development is absolutely necessary to make the reader care.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The quirkiest character of mine that I can think of is the guy who would sneak out of his house in the middle of the night to enlarge his garden by digging up his neighbor’s yard a few inches at a time. It ended up driving the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

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