The Habit Makes The Character

by | Sep 28, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 5 comments

Kojak: “Who Loves ‘Ya Baby?”

by Jamie Freveletti

One of the toughest things to do in writing is to imbue your protagonist with some real traits that make them as unique as you hope them to be, and to do it in a way that isn’t obvious. As Karna mentioned in her post, showing, not telling, is a first step. We show the person sweating, rather than tell you that he’s scared. Well, with personality traits this works as well.

I’m going to rely here on a few from television and the movies, because actors bring a lot of personality quirks alive when they’re creating a character. I’ve often wished I could have a professional actor read my manuscript and then give me pointers on what they would do if they had to create the character on screen.

For example, in the television show Kojak, Telly Savalas imbues the character, a hard boiled police lieutenant, with a few quirks. The most loved one was his habit of sucking on lollipops. Kojak is tough, smart and mature, but he’s also trying to kick smoking and he reaches for a lollipop rather than a cigarette. This habit became ingrained in the character and made Kojak real.

Add something counter-intuitive to a character in your novel. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but whatever it is, make it consistent. You’ll be surprised how this will help you, and your readers, connect to the character.

In my first Covert One novel, The Janus Reprisal, I thought about habits and decided to give Jon Smith, the Covert Operative protagonist, a habit of never accepting a hotel room above the third floor. Smith spends his life with risk and his genius is in the skills he uses to minimize it. He wants fire ladders to be able to reach the floor and he wants to be able to exit on his own if need be. He never wants to be trapped in a burning building or cornered by an attacker. In one scene he falls unconscious and wakes up in a room on the sixth floor of a high rise and his first thought is to flee to a lower elevation. The average person doesn’t have to worry about such things as a part of their daily lives, but a covert operator does. It’s a small part of Smith, but it helps to fill out the character. I’m glad I added it.

Once you’re onto this quirk- as- personality thing, it becomes almost a game to spot them. Monk’s obsessive compulsive behavior is obvious and endearing and Bond’s “shaken not stirred” drink preference is famous. And then there’s Colombo’s last minute turn back to say, “Just one more thing…”

Give it a shot and let me know if it helps your work in progress!

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    What a simple but effective suggestion, Jamie. I love the way you show it! Thanks for a terrific post!

  2. Karna Bodman

    Jamie – this post was an excellent reminder to give our characters specific habits or quirks….it makes me want to go back and edit my new manuscript. In fact, I think I will grab a second cup of coffee and try to do just that….thanks for this great article!

  3. Jamie Freveletti

    I, too, am now deciding what habit I want my protagonist to have. It's an interesting exercise and I hope will only make the book better.

  4. KJ Howe

    Love your idea of the quirk…and those examples really demonstrate it. And I'm all for rooms on lower floors!!! Thanks for the great post.

  5. Chris Goff

    Jamie, this was really helpful. So often as a new writer you're told to give your character a quirk to set him or her apart, but often the kind of quirks that a character ends up with are hard to maintain. What really made this clear was your example about Kojak and the lollipops. I'd totally forgotten that, but it brought the character immediately to mind for me. Great write up.