Of Quirks and Flaws

Sometimes one thing leads to another. When I was engaged in reading/discussing a great blog post by Katie Cross a couple of days ago, I had one of those moments where (please allow me to be cheesy for a moment) the metaphorical light bulb goes on and a brand new thought is suddenly blindingly obvious.

The subject under discussion was quirky characters. Also, flawed characters. And I realized just how commonly we conflate those two. I hadn’t actually thought about this before…

quirk: an unusual habit or way of behaving / a peculiar trait: idiosyncrasy (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

flaw: a defect in physical structure or form / an imperfection or weakness and especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

To be genuine and memorable, characters need to have both quirks and flaws, as all people have them. Those are the characters we love and remember for life. But quirks do not equal flaws, and flaws do not equal quirks. And this is where the light bulb came on for me: flaws need to be overcome or changed; quirks do not.

It’s not a question of how noticeable or dramatic a quirk is — a taste for lurid glittery eyeshadow is an infinitesimal quirk, and a mouth full of swear words might be a strongly intrusive one, but they don’t get “upgraded” to flaws. It’s not a question of how serious or mild a flaw is — a minor disregard for the comfort of others (leaving the toilet seat up and dirty dishes on the table, say) is much less of a flaw than a propensity for theft or violence, but that doesn’t get it “downgraded” to a mere quirk.  It’s not a question of how annoying or socially acceptable a trait might be — you could be weirded out by, say, a friend’s foot fetish, but that wouldn’t mean s/he ought to sacrifice that part of his/her personality (quirk), whereas a friend who engages in bullying clearly has to resolve that forthwith if you’re going to continue any kind of friendship (flaw).

Since Little Women was taken as an example in Katie’s blog post, I’ll use that as a positive illustration too: Jo does not need to become less of a tomboy and turn herself into a lady to be fulfilled as a character (quirk) but her hot temper brings consequences until she learns to tame it (flaw). Anne of Green Gables came up in the resulting blog-comments discussion too: Anne’s wonderful imagination and chatter and passionate nature are lovely and vivid quirks, but it’s her inability to rein herself in that must be conquered for her to mature.

Quirks Presented As Flaws

When writers don’t want to give their precious characters real flaws, the kind that truly might be deal-breakers in friendships and relationships, they often deal in ersatz flaws such as “pride”, and a particularly nasty cousin of this is the presentation of quirks as flaws (i.e., something to be overcome or normalized).

Why should the geek girl need to become a cheerleader or figure skater to be fulfilled? Why should the daydreamer and looker-on-the-bright-side have to face gritty reality to become whole? Why should the introvert be expected to become an extravert? It’s not that you can’t have a geek girl who wants to be a cheerleader, or an introvert who’d like to become more comfortable at parties; it’s that the mere fact of being a geek or an introvert isn’t a flaw.

This use of a quirk in the role of character flaw can do one of two rotten things — it can weaken the character and book, if the quirky little “flaw” is an obvious Mary Sue waffle, or it can bolster up the idea that “normal” mainstream choices are the only acceptable ones. Both of those get a huge DISLIKE sticker from me! Boo!

Flaws Presented As Quirks

On the other hand, we all like a flawed hero, right? A bit damaged, a bit vulnerable under the tough shell… In fact, those little flaw things, they’re just quirks, right?

This is particularly insidious in romance, where violently possessive jealousy isn’t an uncommon trait, along with thundering arrogance (especially in Regency historicals with all those dukes and marquesses running around), and yet those are presented as almost desirable attributes, or at worst, harmless quirks. Then there’s the newer wave of erotica featuring “dominant” men — and not in a healthy BDSM-educated way — who get excused as being a little troubled or needing to feel in control of their lives. Quirks? Really?

Anti-heroes are fine. Unlikeable, unreliable narrators are fine. Protagonists who have real, serious, crushing flaws that can’t be resolved are fine. A scumbag who happens to be the only person who can save the world — sure, why not? But it bothers me when troubling behaviours are excused as “just quirks”, because it gives support to the idea that real people with those problems are justified, or it doesn’t matter, or it can be swept under the rug. That violent jealousy is romantic. That bossing your partner around is a normal way of expressing your need for control if you had a hard childhood. That because the book doesn’t call the fictional characters on their flaws, no one in real life will either. That does more harm than the world’s biggest DISLIKE sticker could express.

One Without The Other

Minor and incidental characters have one without the other all the time.

Standard villainous henchmen and minions (not the cute kind) are full of flaws so the hero can trick or distract or out-fight them, but frequently aren’t fleshed out enough to have much in the way of quirks… think Star Wars stormtroopers, etc. Little things can do a lot to differentiate a group of minor characters — a set of dungeon guards, say, with one who’s in need of some Gold Bond and one who’s always eating and so on — but it’s not strictly necessary. After all, you’re not asking your readers to fall in love with or particularly remember them.

Little quirks and engaging traits are a standard way of filling out the population at large around major characters — neighbours, schoolmates, ball guests, cruise ship passengers… it wouldn’t make sense to give even half of the supporting cast fully developed personalities complete with flaws, so to prevent the neighbourhood or ballroom being full of samey cardboard cutouts, they get liberally sprinkled with quirky traits. That’s fine; it fits with readers’ expectations, and those minor players don’t need to have character arcs and overcome things.

Major characters do need both flaws and quirks, though; flawlessness is annoying, and the absence of quirks leaves us cold. It’s the combination of the two that makes the characters realistic and embeds them in our memories forever.

And now I need to go rewrite some things.