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Quirks, Bets, and Fantasy Dance Partners

“My friends here have a bet going about you,” he said.

I was with my own friends in a piano bar and I was on my way to the restroom when this table of five guys stopped me. Common sense said to keep walking. “Oh?” I said.

we're going to a wedding

we're going to a wedding

He nodded. “We have a bet about who is taller–you or him.” He gestured to one of his friends. “You mind if he stands next to you?”

I couldn’t decide if it was insulting to stand there and be measured by a table of guys I didn’t know or if it was uptight to get ticked off about it. “All right,” I said. One of the guys looked surprised I hadn’t told them off, but the others looked like they were used to this.

The tall one stood up. “You don’t mind?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Beats being asked how the weather is up here.” He laughed, but he lost his bet. I was an inch taller.

Sometimes when out with friends a guy would ask me to dance. I got tired of the look on the guy’s face when I stood up. “You’re tall,” they usually said. I’d smile. “Yes, I am.” Even if they were taller than me, they’d usually leave me on the dance floor after one dance. If they didn’t, they’d stay for one reason. As one drunk fellow said looking up at me, “It’s always been my fantasy to dance with a tall girl.” Some guys were more succinct. “I like ’em tall!” Sigh.

A manager transfered me out of his department to where I “could get more hours.” I didn’t get any more hours, but I did have several coworkers tell me that he transfered because I was taller than him. “Just look,” they said. “All the women in his department are petite.”

Then there was that photographer who asked my husband to stand on a box for our engagement photo. We went along with it because I thought it was funny. Twelve years later I still like showing that picture to friends. They frown. “Wait. I thought S. was shorter than you.” Ha.

In fiction characters are often given distinguishing traits. I’ve yet to write about a character who is tall. Too close. And some features are off limits because they belong to people I shouldn’t be caught writing about. It is a trick though, finding a quirk that humanizes the character and makes that individual stand out without coming across as forced and unbelievable.

I think that trait should reveal something or surprise the reader in some way. The trait may shape the character. Perhaps be contradictory in some way–like being over 6’1″ and not playing basketball. Or as one man said to me, “All that height going to waste.”

Indeed. In fiction, a character’s distinguishing feature should not go to waste, but should not be the only thing noteworthy either. Any favorite quirks you’ve ever given your characters? Any favorite characters in other books with some mark that stands out? The hairy feet of a hobbit? The scar of an orphan wizard or the bushy hair of the wizard’s friend? The green skin of a witch? The limp of a convict? The prosthetic limb of a country girl? The mismatched eyes of a detective? What else?

11 thoughts on “Quirks, Bets, and Fantasy Dance Partners

  1. I’m quite fond of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People,” in which an object of contention is a prosthetic limb of a character and the name that character assumes in the belief that it is ugly, but to answer your question, all my front-rank characters have some quirk, not necessarily physical, a sensitivity toward, an aversion, a weakness for–all of which, as I get deeper into the role of the character, becomes a significant, driving force. Having been called Shorty until that remarkable freshman year in high school when the name underwent no less a metamorphosis than I did, I too grew tired of being asked for weather reports from up there, equally tired of showers fitted out for persons of more average height, and beds which offer the choice of sleeping on an angle or having feet protrude. But I was never given to thinking of physical traits as a way to drive story although there was a period of some years when nearly every female character who set foot on a page of mine had Pre-Raphaelite curls, a fact I have only recently begun to associate with Diane, whom I dated steadily for about two years and who had, yep, Pre-Raphaelite curls. Some writers I know are big on physical oddities or anomalies as a way of getting at their characters. One, a suspense writer, uses the big or little for approach: She had small hands for a pianist. He had a big head for such a skinny neck. On the other hand, I’d want to know how old the hobbit before the question of shaving the foot hair, or if warlocks considered the witch’s green skin sexy. And were I ever to do a vampire story, I’d want there to be at least one vampire in a twelve-step program.

  2. The most extravagant physical traits have at least one virtue: they probably resemble nobody you’ve ever met, so you don’t need to worry on the “people I shouldn’t be writing about” front. 🙂

    In one of Carl Hiaasen’s books, there’s a thug/bouncer with a fairly significant POV and role in the plot. At some point of violence in his past, he lost one arm, from the elbow down. Rather than just go with a straight-ahead prosthetic replacement, replaced it with a power “weed-whacker.” This had certain advantages for the plot. (The scene in which, in his bouncer capacity, he clears a dance floor — well, it’s pretty hard to forget.) But he was actually a pretty thoughtful thug. And in his thinking about his decision, in his thoughtfulness, he became quite charming. Because of the nature of his work and, well, how good he was at it, he was repugnant and you guessed he’d have to go by the end of the story. But you as a reader didn’t look forward to it.

    I think this example illustrates, for me, that to make (in this case) an evil character sympathetic, you don’t have to bestow upon him a sad backstory — abusive parents, alcoholism, and/or etc. (I don’t remember this guy having any of that.) You can just give him a striking physical attribute, one which imposes a psychological liability as well. If the character acknowledges the trait up-front, thinks about it w/out obsessing…

    Well, I guess this is just an extension of the bit about making the story about the characters, turning it over to them rather than pushing them around.

  3. I have freckles and my daughter is a redhead with lots of freckles. We’ve both struggled with the sterotype of freckles in books and movies meaning someone isn’t sexy or attractive (even Lindsay Lohan covers hers up now). In my novel, I gave the mom freckles, but not the teenage daughter- I wanted to give my own daughter some privacy and not have her feel like I was using her- but it’s an issue that continues to bug me, for her sake. No doubt I’ll use it in another story somewhere down the line-

  4. I am short. 5’3″ and dark haired, but the protagonist in my first novel that is languishing in my files and calling out to be rewritten was very tall, and very strong, with big hands and dishwater hair that her mother keeps trying to get her to dye. She is also over 30. When I wrote it, I was 25 and I had someone tell me I couldn’t write a 30 year old because I couldn’t understand. I was never told I couldn’t write about a tall person, though. Hmm.

    Her size informed her character, mainly because her mother had expected her to be just like her, petite and glamorous. She was even named for something dainty, a flower, and it was always something she couldn’t live down, until– well, that’s the story.

    I don’t know why I made her the opposite of me physically or why I made that make her who she was. Strangely, I am now many years over 30, have a best friend who kind of looks just like I imagined my character to look (6″ tall, strong, blond, although much more well adjusted,) and am living in the place where the character finds herself. I don’t know how the distance narrowed between my life and my fiction. Very interesting, though.

    If I didn’t already have too many writing projects going on, I might start this one up again.

  5. rowena: “dishwater hair”! I love that! But I don’t understand it. What is “dishwater hair”? I picture something sort of straight and limp, maybe the color of… of dirty dishwater? can that be right?

    Did you make that term up?

  6. Shelly, I’ve long been jealous of women with curls. And speaking of hair, JES, my hair has been described as dishwater hair many times. I suppose it means a dullish blond color–not really blonde but not really brown. You know, not hair to get excited about. rowena did not make it up.

    rowena, one day I’d love to read about your tall protagonist. You can write about someone tall if you are short and you can write about someone old if you’re young. What kind of novels would we have if we could only write about people who look just like us? All you need is the ability to empathize, to be open to seeing the world from another point of view. I think you’ve got that.

    Oh, and JES, I was thinking that I couldn’t say for example, give a certain character a streak of blonde hair that grew naturally in a headful of brown hair because then a certain traveling companion would suspect I was writing about him. I hear he is lawyer these days and I just assume avoid trouble.

    Sarah, I find avoid things in stories that might be attributed to my son even though I may not mean him at all. I don’t want him to feel that I am ever using him for a story. He has freckles though. Freckles are cool!

  7. A double re: here.

    Re: Vampire in a 12-step program. There is a charmingly old-school temperance vampire in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories. I recommend this wiki for a look at the overarching concept — http://wiki.lspace.org/wiki/%C3%9Cberwald_League_of_Temperance

    Re: Appearance and character. May be something deeply wired, since there are extensive discussions about ugliness and sin in medieval Christian theological texts. Some wrote ugliness, deformity, and outlier traits were signs of the evil inherent in a person; some wrote that those so created were children of God like any other and should be loved as such.

    Mapelba, thanks as always for providing such a sprightly comments-kitchen!

  8. lori, I don’t know why I’ve never read Pratchett because everything I read about him tells me I should. Well, my to-read list is very long. And you’re welcome.

    Shelly, oh, I just can’t suffer vampires…

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