Idiosyncracies, how to use them and why your character needs them

This is an often overlooked and sometimes misunderstood part of creating a character. Too often we talk about a characters strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, favorite brand of coffee, that sort of thing. We don’t talk a lot about characters idiosyncrasies, though, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. When you think about it, isn’t that a big part of what you think of when you think about a real person?

So, just so we’re all aware, an idiosyncrasy is a behavior or way of thought particular to a specific person. Often this is associated with something weird or unexpected in someone’s personality. There are a lot of examples, but the first one that comes to mind for me is from the show Burn Notice. The main character is a smart, fearless super spy. Or as he says, he used to be a spy. He eats yogurt. I don’t mean like sometimes for breakfast. I mean he is often seen with yogurt. People bring him yogurt as a gift, steal his yogurt as a threat. He’s done at least one job for yogurt. He’s a super deadly man, who has worked for yogurt.

To clarify a bit further, an idiosyncrasy is not a character flaw. If a character is scared of spiders, that is a flaw. If a character is scared of spiders, so he takes off his shoe to kill them every time he sees one instead of just stepping on them, that is an idiosyncrasy.

An idiosyncrasy is also not a strength, or a normal hobby. Your character likes books. That is a strength. Your character speaks three languages. That is a strength. Your character has gone out of her way to collect fairy tales in French. That is an idiosyncrasy. Extra marks if she can’t actually speak French.

With this being little more than a weird character trait, some might say, why even bother with it at all?

For one thing, it makes your character more human. We’ll go back to Michael Weston for a minute. He’s not always a very likable or relatable character. He’s often doing terrible things or being a terrible person. His obsession with yogurt is humanizing. It’s also funny.

Idiosyncrasies can also suggest sub plots, or add to a main plot. Let’s take, for example, A Series of Unfortunate Events. One of the main characters, Violet, wears a hair ribbon when she’s making an invention. This hair ribbon has been used to incriminate her in a crime. People have used it to impersonate her. Once getting her ribbon back helped her feel more like herself so that she was able to think of an amazing invention to save her siblings.

Here’s another thing that Violet’s hair ribbon did for me, as a reader. I have long hair, and I can’t think of anything if it’s all around my face. I have to have my hair pulled back if I’m to get anything done from dishes to writing. This made Violet a very relatable character for me. Though I actually had more in common with Klause. #glassesproblems.

Finally, I’d like to revisit Michael Weston. He with his yogurt fetish. That was a clever thing to put into his character, because it does so much. The last thing it does for him is give him a spot of humor, which helps balance out his character. Without that, he’s sort of a narrow minded hard ass who has repeatedly put his friends and family in danger on the road to his goals.

Look at your character, and think about what sort of weird idiosyncrasy you can give them. My personal example was to give my main character Lenore a love of dogs. She’s a very professional, stern, get shit done sort of person, until she sees a puppy then she goes all over girly.

What do you think? What’s your favorite idiosyncrasy from a famous literary or movie character?

2 thoughts on “Idiosyncracies, how to use them and why your character needs them

Add yours

  1. I can’t find idiosyncrasies for my character yet but your article help me to much more understand what it is all about. I think I am too focused on making her tough and independant and don’t want her to be ridiculous. Yours examples help me a lot. Thank you


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