Sometimes when I’m reading or listening to a book, the characters will piss me off. They will do something so obviously stupid, unable to stop themselves, like a freight train without brakes, barreling towards ruining their life or relationship or their cup of coffee. But then I have to remember that real people have problems, too. So, the best way to make your characters realistic is to add a quirk, a pet peeve, and a little baggage.
Think about your own Pet Peeves. What are the things that cause you to flip off the handle, then clench your teeth and shut your mouth because that little voice in your head is saying “Shut up! SHUT UP! Don’t let anyone know about your weirdness or they’ll screw with you for the rest of your existence!” Real people have Pet Peeves. The sound of someone chewing annoys my daughter to no end. It’s kind of out of her control, so she teaches herself to tune it out. Figure out your Pet Peeve and ramp it up to ten for the character you’re writing. Then have someone annoy the hell out of them with it. Perhaps another character appears from their past to remind them of their issue, and then it embarrasses them in front of the person they have a huge crush on because it’s something they do all the time.
The definition of the word Quirk in the sense I’m using it is “an unusual habit or way of behaving” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Giving a character a quirk is a way of showing that they aren’t perfect. Maybe they can’t chew gum because they end up snapping it constantly to the detriment of others. (These can be lumped in with Pet Peeves, but they are different in my opinion.) Perhaps your character wears a specific color of shoes every day. I never have to worry about my purse and my shoes matching because I always have black purses and I always wear black shoes or boots.
All the lovely word ‘baggage’. Everyone has baggage, even those with lives that appear to be charmed. There’s always something lurking in the depths that they bear on their shoulders. Baggage is something that wakes you up in the night. It’s something that makes you wary of others. Baggage can be so heavy that it’s difficult to breathe, to move, to even think.
Give your characters baggage, but don’t go so overboard that you trigger others panic attacks. And if you are writing something that will trigger a panic attack, put a warning in the blurb or at the front of the book. There is an actual website dedicated to telling people what pages have what type of trigger so that people who have panic attacks from these triggers can read them and be able to skip those sections.
Baggage is a great way to give a character a hurdle that they have to find a way to get over, through, or around. Something they need to learn how to deal with, to handle it in a way that they can grow as a person. GIving a character baggage just to give them baggage without giving them a way to grow is a waste of words. Make sure you give it some serious consideration. What would you do in their position?
Tips & Tricks
There are quite a few ways you can learn about Pet Peeves, Quirks, and Baggage. If you have a day job, listen to your coworkers talk. You’ll learn something truly interesting that might be great to use as a character flaw. If you don’t have a dayjob (or regular job during afternoon or graveyard shift) go places. Go to restaurants and listen to the people around you. Walk at the park and listen to people talk. Not only does this get you out of the house, it’ll also help you create more realistic characters.
Read forums like Reddit to learn about people’s insecurities and ask them questions. Be nice about it, though. People aren’t always open to sharing them, especially if you use it against them. Which is what you’ll do with your characters who are fictional and people will feel for them and be mad at you for tormenting them in a way that makes them want to throw the book across the room.