Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, writing-related question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.
QUESTION: For fiction writers – do you ever give your characters annoying habits? What are the annoying habits you enjoy including in stories?
Julie Hennrikus: Habits or tics are such a great way to “show” something about a character. Twirling hair, sucking on a pigtail, snapping gum, foot tapping, throat clearing, snorting, humming while eating…I’ve used them all. Repeating certain words or short phrases are another annoying habit. It is how another character reacts to these things that makes them annoying though, don’t you think? Throat clearing can indicate nervousness, which can be endearing. Or it can be the habit that sits on your last nerve during a bad date.
Diane MacKinnon: I like to give characters habits that truly annoy me, but then I usually take them out because I think that anyone who knows me will read it and know that I’m really talking about so-and-so’s snoring or this one’s habit of chewing with her mouth open. Then I try to think of another habit that would be similar so my character could react the way I would without actually dissing anyone in my personal life. That way I can describe the reaction authentically and also (hopefully) keep the reader’s interest. In the beginning of The Mermaid’s Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd, the author describes her main character’s annoyance at the way her sleeping husband breathes. It’s a wonderful description–I’m annoyed just thinking about it!
Jamie Lee Wallace: I haven’t used this myself, but I did notice it in a book I read last year. It was either Luka and the Fire of Life or Haroun and the Sea of Stories (both by Salman Rushdie). There was an officious character – a governmental figurehead or member of royalty or something – who made every statement three times. He didn’t repeat his exact words, but he said the same thing three different ways. It was such a perfect way to make the author’s point about the lamentable nature of political speech. Made me nuts once I’d figured out the pattern. I wanted to slap the guy. I think that annoying habits can help add character depth and personality, but I think they need to be handled with a light hand. The way Rushdie created a habit that was based in language made the effect subtle and clever instead of tiresome.
Wendy Thomas: This is something that I typically don’t do, but then I mostly write stories of real people (interviews, features) and memoir material so I don’t want annoying habits to get in the way of telling a story or having people think negatively about my subject. However, if the day comes when I have to write a feature on a person I detest, I might use this little technique just to let my readers know how I really feel and to clue them in that this person might not be an upstanding citizen. An example of this is if I were to interview someone convicted of a murder, I might point out in my article that they constantly bit their fingernails or said “you, know?” after each answer just to make the point that they are annoying.
Deborah Lee Luskin: One of my favorite examples of using speech patterns to create character is Miss Bates, in Jane Austen’s Emma. But anything that is “in character” also “creates character”. Sometimes, I just have to hold my nose and make a character do something fairly repulsive – even characters I like. This is simply how humans behave. Even the most airbrushed supermodel and the hunkiest movie star has her/his messy biological moments. And it is our characters tics and habits and neuroses that make them interesting and help support their motivations and behavior. Personally, I find writing about someone picking their nose while driving the car very difficult – but very effective. No one said this was easy work.
Susan Nye: But of course. A story wouldn’t ring true if everyone in it was perfect. Not just the bad guys, even the most loveable of characters have to have a wart or two. I’ve created patronizing bullies, silly-headed drunks and petty thieves. Voices have been loud and shrill and fashion choices have been more than questionable. It all goes to creating a multidimensional picture of the people in the story.