I might write pages and pages of conversation between characters that don’t necessarily end up in the book, or in the story I’m working on, because they’re simply my way of getting to know the characters.
– Norton Juster
Quirky characters appear in many novels and TV series. Think the main character in
Dexter, all of the characters in NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles and the Agatha Christie character, Hercule Poirot, who has crossed from books into movies and TV. Not surprising as life is filled with eccentric characters. Look around you as you go about your day. It could be that old lady wearing sandals, a winter coat and straw hat standing on the corner and yelling. It might be your dad who insists on having one white vegetable, one yellow vegetable and one green vegetable at dinner; then meticulously cuts them all into tiny pieces before spooning them into his mouth.
Or maybe it’s you.
How do you create an eccentric character for your short story or novel and what can you “borrow” from life or can you?
Most of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point have at least one eccentric character, although most, if not all, the characters contain a certain amount of quirkiness. My favourite is Great Aunt Doris who appears in two of the four linked stories featuring the fraternal twin PIs, Dana and Bast.
Where did Doris come from?
I did have an eccentric aunt who at one time when she was alive was the same age (70s) as Great Aunt Doris. Like Doris, my aunt was short and had a mouth on her. There any resemblance ends. My aunt was deep into Catholicism and anti-fluoridation and spoke her mind on both in a somewhat whiny voice, punctuated by a grin showing all her yellow teeth. Great Aunt Doris isn’t particularly religious, but she is conservative and has set ideas on what mothers should do and be. And she hates gays. As Dana is a mother and a PI with a son and Bast is gay, you get an idea where that could go. Doris is also the great aunt of Dana’s ex-husband, but that doesn’t stop her from showing up uninvited on Dana’s and Bast’s doorsteps. And meddling in their lives.
- You can base your eccentric characters on someone you know or met but remember “base” is a four-letter word. Pick one or two traits you like about your real-life eccentric and build your character from there using your imagination.
- Envision how your character looks and sounds: Great Aunt Doris has an ugly face – her aging wrinkles and puffy, yet sagging cheeks, plus that ruby-red lipstick make her resemble a gargoyle, especially when she opens her mouth. And she does, in a gravelly voice, to criticize Dana’s parenting skills and insult Bast as well as poke herself into the Attic Agency’s current case. Her usual garb is a flowered housedress and flat shoes or pumps but when she’s on a case, she does a female version of Sherlock Holmes – minus the pipe. I did say she was conservative.
- Don’t create an eccentric character just for the sake of having one. He or she must fit into your story and interact realistically with the other characters. In other words, he or she must do the impossible – blend in as well as stand out as a distinct character. Here’s a dialogue excerpt from my short story “Saving Grace.” Dana is in the middle of tracking down a suspect when her cell rings. It is Great Aunt Doris.
“Yes, Doris,” I say.
“David…David,” deep breath, “David…is throwing a tantrum,” Aunt Doris says. “He’s…hey, little fellow, take it…gulp…easy. Dana, you’d better be a good mother and get back to the hotel…now.”
“Aunt Doris, calm down. I’ll be—”
A vehicle’s coming down the road, slowing down.
“Just a minute, Aunt Doris.” Without disconnecting the cell, I jump off the veranda and scurry behind a nearby bush.
“What is the matter with you, Dana? Your little boy is having a fit and you run off….”
“Shh, Aunt Doris.”
“Don’t you shush me young lady. Your son—”
(Excerpted from “Saving Grace,” from Beyond the Tripping Point, Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press, due out fall 2012).
There is also Detective Sergeant Fielding who gets migraines and sometimes stutters. But that’s another story…or is it? He appears in many of the Dana and Bast stories and shares one trait with Great Aunt Doris. He doesn’t like Bast, but not because Bast is gay. So your eccentric doesn’t have to be a pariah. Remember the eccentric must fit into your story.
When you get an idea for an eccentric character, do a detailed character sketch. Don’t forget the feelings, including how you feel about him or her. What is the character’s purpose in the story? And make sure the eccentric isn’t someone from your real life. This is fiction, not memoir.
Sharon A. Crawford