We all have our thoughts on what makes or breaks a romance story. For me, nothing makes a story more than when an author has a character driven novel and the reader feels like this character is real. They have pasts, they have problems and yes, they have habits and quirks. These little touches can really bring a story to life.
I watched my husband with a hummingbird the cat got last week. I’d been painting the door and had it cracked open for the paint to dry. The cat bumped through and raced for my son’s room. My husband sat up in his chair, then bolted to his feet. “He’s got a mouse!” The cat dropped his prize at the foot of my son’s bed, just as my husband got there. Not a mouse, a hummingbird. It buzzed past his head and landed on the dresser.
The thing that really struck me, that tugged at the heartstrings and made me all mushy inside, was the way he scooped it up and cradled it in a dishtowel. Its little heart was pounding a thousand beats a minute and we didn’t know if it was too frightened to fly, or too hurt. It had flown up to the dresser, but after it got here, it collapsed. My husband was so gentle with it, so concerned. A side I rarely see, of my rough around the edges soldier boy. I’m talking a hard-core, combat trained, tough as nails Gulf War Army Veteran.
I love a man that once in awhile can let that softer side slip and give you a small glimpse, as my husband did. It genuinely upset him. He kept telling it, "It's okay sweetheart. It’s okay." He took it outside, nestled in the towel, and put it up high where it was safe. All along talking so soft. One of those fleeting ‘Aw’, moments for me.
Then he screamed at the cat and called it an asshole. A very fleeting moment, but that’s the man I know and love.
So, why am I telling you this?
The best stories imitate life. If you intend to build realistic characters, you need to work real life into the story. Take things that happen you, like the situation above and use them to breathe life into your text. Give your characters, character. Watch, observe, and write what you see. Spy on people. Snoop and be nosey. Go ahead, you’re a writer, you have a license to do it. In my opinion, the most compelling characters are those that have odd habits, little quirks and occasionally you get a glimpse of a rare side of them, as I did with my husband.
I remember when my youngest son was three. My older child was six at the time and used to hide behind the shower curtain and jump out at his brother when he sat down on the toilet. It scared him something terrible. He’d run out, pants around the ankles, screaming at the top of his lungs and crying. He took to wearing a happy meal, trick-or-treat bucket on his head and carrying a water pistol after that. In his mind, he was well armed. Regardless, he’d always rip the curtain back before he sat down. Twelve years later, he’s lost the bucket and pistol, but he still rips that shower curtain open. I hear it every time he goes into the bathroom. He’ll probably continue to do this for the rest of his life. For him, it’s second nature. An odd quirk.
It’s those odd quirks I love in the stories I read. All kinds of experiences shape and mould us into the people we become. Why should it be any different for our characters? Take time and think about your characters as children. What experiences did they have? What makes them the men and women they become? There’s nothing worse than cookie-cutter characters. You know what I’m talking about, we’ve all seen them. They fall flat and the readers don’t care about them. If you want them to walk off the pages and capture the hearts of your readers, build these traits into your characters. It will breathe life into them. Go ahead, give them quirks and habits, make them a bit neurotic, a klutz, or compulsive. These little life events make great material. Use them.
It's about a grizzled veteran and a hummingbird, a child and his fear of the monster in the shower, and the three hundred pound, bear of a man, neighbor, that takes the trash out in the morning only to meet a baby skunk. He dances around in his wifes fluffy pink robe, trash bags in hand, screaming like a little girl. Unforgetable moments that make you laugh, cry or react. These are the elements of a great story. These are the things I love to see.
The best books I’ve read have characters that are developed in such a manner. It’s all part of the world building. In Sci Fi and Fantasy we’ve got great elements to play with and sometimes we get so caught up in our worlds we forget it’s the characters that make these worlds come to life. So go ahead, give em some quirks. I dare you.
As for our friend the hummingbird... Not to worry. It survived. After about an hour, we went back on the porch where we'd left it. It was gone.