The dictionary definitions overlap and vary which makes it unclear and difficult to understand, especially for new writers just testing their character creation toes in the water. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a habit as "a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up / an automatic reaction to a specific situation," and a quirk as "a peculiar behavioral habit."
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a habit as ‘something you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it’ and a quirk as ‘an unusual trait or behavior, or something that is strange and unexpected.’
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.
The Difference Between Character Habits, Behaviors, and More
But what exactly is the difference between Behaviors, Habits, Mannerisms, and Quirks? In my investigation into character quirks, I found there are subtle differences between them. Let’s first look at the dictionary meaning for each:
Behavior: Manner of acting or controlling yourself, (behavioral attributes) the way a person behaves toward other people
Foible: a behavioral attribute that is distinctive and peculiar to an individual
Habit: an automatic pattern of behavior in reaction to a specific situation; may be inherited or acquired through frequent repetition: ‘she had a habit of twirling the ends of her hair’
Idiosyncrasy: A behavior or way of thinking that is characteristic of a person, a slight glitch, mannerism; something unusual about the manner or style of something or someone
Mannerism: A behavioral attribute that is distinctive and peculiar to an individual
Quirk: an individual peculiarity of character; mannerism or foible
Habits are matters of daily routine, things your character has done so often that they’ve become automatic and would be extremely hard to change. Habits may be unique to your character or may be common in your character’s community.
Looking both ways before crossing the street is a habit, though it’s so useful and universal that it’s likely to be unnoticeable (unless your character moves to the US from the UK and his neighbors notice that he looks right-left-right while they look left-right-left).
Checking that all the doors are locked before going to sleep may be a deliberate precaution in a dangerous place and time. However, in a safe place and time it’s likely to be a habit peculiar to your character, showing either that she once lived in a dangerous place or that she suffers from obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Finishing other people’s sentences is a not uncommon habit, but it may be highly noticeable and frustrating to people who aren’t accustomed to it.
Quirks are usually idiosyncratic (peculiar to the individual). And, they’re likely to seem odd to the people who interact with your character.
Maybe your character cultivates quirks for effect. Maybe they’ve become habitual, or they’re deeply rooted in his nature, and he can’t readily change them.
Those who interact with your character probably won’t be sure which sort of quirk they’re dealing with. Repeating the last few words of the other person’s sentence in a conversation may suggest involuntary mechanical and meaningless repetition of the words of another person, suspicion, or a strategy for getting time to craft a response.
Capping remarks with famous quotations may be a sign of an eager reader with a quickly-connecting mind, or of an ambitious person trying to demonstrate their knowledge.
Walking everywhere instead of driving or taking the Underground, even in bad weather, may suggest a lack of money, or concern for the environment, or an extreme dedication to fitness, or simply a habit leftover from a time when one of these forces was in effect.
You may find it easier to remember the difference between habits and quirks this way:
Quirks are actions or behavioral personality traits that are deliberate. In contrast, habits are actions or traits that are automatic.
Bringing Characters to Life with Quirks and Habits
One of the hardest and most satisfying parts of writing is making your characters fully alive so your readers can recognize them, visualize them, believe in them, and care about them.
Of course, this requires careful use of story events, flashbacks, memories, and dialogue. It’s also helpful to flesh characters out with distinctive quirks and habits.
Quirks and habits serve several purposes in fiction. Here are a few major uses:
- Identifying Characters
- Defining Character
- Revealing Tension
- Creating Conflict
- Habits and Quirk Shifts
Adding Idiosyncratic Meat to Quirky Bones
When you create a new character or want to inject a little more life into an existing character, try adding habits and quirks. That can be anything from biting nails to picking toes to switching lights on and off.
My book, the A~Z Writers’ Character Quirks: A~ Z of Behaviors, Foibles, Habits, Mannerisms & Quirks for Writers to Create Fictional Characters, will help you to explore an alphabetical list of behavior, foibles, habits, mannerisms, and quirks for creating fictional characters.
Another way to find character habits and quirks is to watch people. Anywhere. Anytime. Riding the bus, on the train, in a café bar or airport. Go to a public place armed with a large newspaper and notepad and start watching what people do. Write their little quirks down and start making a quirky folder for using in your next writing project.
Good luck, enjoy creating weird and wonderful fictional people!