Add a Layer of Depth to Characters by Being Quirky

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My latest obsession is the hit TV show, The Big Bang Theory, currently in its seventh season. I relate to the four male characters because they're all nerds and geeks. Well, they're nerdier and geekier than I am, but I can relate to their skills, or lack thereof with women, their love of geek culture, and their quirky personalities. Which brings me to character depth.

Character depth is important in storytelling as it helps root us emotionally to the players in the story. But how do you measure depth. In the physical world, a measuring tape is used to measure from one point to another, for example. You do the same thing with characters, measuring one trait to the other.

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One of my favorite movies is the original The Karate Kid. The main character, Daniel, isn't a physically strong kid, one of his character traits. His nemesis, Johnny, is strong and beats Daniel up with ease. What makes things worse is Johnny has friends who also beat on him, emphasizing Daniel's trait, physical powerlessness. What provides depth is Daniel's other character trait, his strong personality. 

Stereotypically, a meek character is accompanied with a meek personality. That is not the case with Daniel. His ability to charm Johnny's ex-girlfriend and willingness to standup for himself, despite getting beat up for his efforts, shows inner strength. 

The measurement from his strength of character to his inability to back it up in a fist fight is part of Daniel's depth as a character. We feel depth because there's a difference within his personality compared to his physicality, and we pull for him because he tries to close the gap between the two, making up part of his character arc. What Daniel doesn't realize is that he needs to shift his focus away from the destination, beating Johnny by becoming stronger, and move toward the journey of realizing that his physical powerlessness means nothing.

You can add another layer of depth using something called a quirk. I had learned this during a weekend long lecture called Beyond Structure from David Freeman. Amazing lecture by the way, teaching storytelling techniques instead of theory. I'd highly recommend taking it as it is worth the trip and money.

A quirk, like icing on a cake, is a peculiar aspect of a character. You can't make a delicious cake with just icing, just as you can't make a complete character with just quirks. If you look at the Karate Kid movie franchise, part of its success was due to the continuing story line of Daniel's character development. I think part of its demise, in my opinion with the fourth movie, was that the quirks, the icing of the cake, the old martial arts teacher enlightening a new student, was used as the basis of the movie, instead of delving in deeper.

But that's a subject for another post. We're talkin' quirks here.

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In The Big Bang Theory, all of the characters seem to be built on quirks. Jim Parsons plays Sheldon Cooper. His character traits are narcissism, extreme intelligence (he's a doctor of physics), and anal retentiveness. The issue here is that these traits sort of look alike, despite the fact that they are different things. So to help add a layer of depth, the creators gave him the love of all things that is geek culture—comic books, movies, collectibles, science fiction and fantasy, RPGs and video games, D&D, etc. In fact, all the male characters have this particular quirk. And to differentiate Sheldon from the rest of the cast, the writers removed his ability to read people, and as a result, see sarcasm. Which provides great comic relief. There are other quirks, but this is just an example.

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Sheldon's coworker and friend is Raj Koothrappali, a doctor in astrophysics, played by Kunal Nayyar. One of Raj's traits is his inability to talk to attractive women, a common trait among nerds and geeks. Obviously, he loves women, but what gives him depth is that he's a very effeminate man, displaying homosexual tendencies. So, you'd think his inability to talk to women would be his quirk, despite the running joke throughout the series, but it isn't.

A character trait, as I was taught, affects how one sees the world. If your character is shy, then the world becomes a very small place, constrained by his own limitations. If she is assertive, then the world becomes very big because she's open to new things. A quirk doesn't necessarily define how the character views the world as a whole. It's just a peculiarity.

For Raj, his quirk is his ability to charm women when he's under the influence. As we all know, alcohol is liquid courage. Raj is like Popeye, needing spinach to defeat the demon within. Raj's character arc is fairly simple, overcome his shyness toward women he's attracted to.

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Simon Helberg plays Howard Wolowitz, a mechanical engineer. He's an interesting character because, not only is he a nerd, but he's a lady's man, he thinks. We'd need a long tape to measure nerd to lady's man. Opposite of Raj, Howard can talk to women, but his delusion makes him overly aggressive and creepy, adding to the comedy. He's a momma's boy, so his world is defined by his codependence to her, and her to him, another running joke because he won't move out of his mother's house. He's the only character who doesn't have a doctorate, which is his quirk. It doesn't define his world because he doesn't let it, despite having his ego bruised every now and then when that fact is made plain. Howard's lack of 'doctor' in front of his name helps differentiate him from the other male characters who do hold doctorates.

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We now come to the main character Leonard, a doctor in physics, played by Johnny Galecki. Along with loving the geek culture, he's intelligent but humble. These two traits define great depth because, stereotypically, someone who is highly intelligent is also going to be narcissistic, as we see in Sheldon. What gives Leonard's humbleness more weight is his mother issues; she gave him no love and attention during his childhood, which is funny because it continues into his adult life. So when it comes to women, he becomes desperate and needy. And we all know how much women love those two things, wink wink and wink.

What I find interesting is Leonard's quirk. Out of the four male characters, Leonard is the only normal guy. Not that he has life figured out. Obviously, none of these characters do, which makes them interesting. I think Leonard's 'normal guy' quirk was done on purpose because this helps set the character apart from the others, and gives us, the audience, someone to relate to. Don't get me wrong. Watching the series, I find that I can relate to all of the characters. But Leonard was the first one I rooted for, and I always felt his disappointments when he didn't get the girl he wanted.

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This leads us to the female character, Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco. Penny is the blonde who waits tables so she can live and go on auditions, isn't the smartest, loves to shop, and is superficial. No, not stereotypical at all of a blonde woman living in Southern California. In the beginning of the series, there wasn't much depth written for the character as you can see. If I were to guess her quirk, it'd be her alcoholism, but again, it isn't interesting because it doesn't really affect her life. Her alcohol consumption is used more for comedic relief than anything else. However, her interest and love for Leonard, as the series continues, helps define and clarify her growth, and thankfully, makes her interesting. 

We nerds and geeks will watch the show, wondering how Leonard wins her over. In the beginning, we see her date very attractive guys, guys we think are in her league. But the slow and steady attraction to Leonard provides insight into her and a romantic element to a rather all male cast.

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That is until we see Blossom. Raj and Howard play a joke and find Sheldon a potential girlfriend through a dating site: Mayim Bialik's character, Amy Farrah Fowler, who has a doctorate in neuroscience. She's almost a mirror image of Sheldon—narcissistic, highly intelligent—but instead of being OCD, she's neurotic. When she befriends Penny, the cool girl, she can't help but assign herself as Penny's bestie—best friend. Amy's quirk was born out of that need for acceptance and is displayed through lesbian tendencies, despite the fact that Amy is a heterosexual woman in need of deep physical intimacy but keeps it down due to her neuroticism.

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Lastly, we come to Bernadette, played by Melissa Raunch. Bernadette's character traits are pretty cool: cheerful, intelligent, and incredibly assertive sexually, professionally and as a person. For me, there's a well-rounded feel to her like Leonard.

Quick point:  her traits look different when displayed through dialogue and action. For Sheldon, that's not necessarily the case. His narcism and anal retentiveness can look alike through words and actions, coupled that with his high intelligence, sounding like a know-it-all, can be lost. As a result, he's also the one with the most quirks. With Leonard and Bernadette, their traits don't meld together, so they have a well-rounded feel.

Back to Bernadette. Her quirk comes from her voice, which is obvious if you've seen her interviews on the late night circuit. On the show, Bernadette has a high pitched voice that borders on nasally. This creates a sense of depth because someone who is confident in herself and her sexuality isn't going to have a girl-like tiny voice. It isn't until her character gets into a relationship with Howard that her voice adds another level of quirkiness. Her assertive personality manifests through her voice and accent when she's forced to become aggressive with Howard. 

As I said, Howard is codependent on his mother. And when Bernadette gets a little angry, she sounds a lot like Howard's mother. We know Bernadette's voice is a quirk because neither the high pitched nor the cigarette-smoking Jewish mother voices define how she sees the world. But as a quirk, it works well to help emphasize who the character is as a person, a woman who knows what she wants.

In conclusion, this long exasperated post about quirks only shows how they can help clarify and tag characters into the audiences' minds. But it isn't a requirement nor do quirks have to be quirky, meaning comedic.

In my book, NIGHTFALL, my main character, Talon, loves his wife, is forever loyal to her, and would die for her in an instant. His quirk is that he loves smelling his wife's hair. It brings him peace. In turn, she asks him why he does that, knowing full well what the answer is, as a way to play and flirt and acknowledge his love for her.

Quirks are a great way to ground the character, root us to them, adding another layer of depth to words on a page, or film.