“You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
—Phyllis A. Whitney

Why the Best Characters for Your Story are Weirdos

So much of what most of us consider to be good writing requires the writer to create a believable scene and realistic characters—or if not believable and realistic, close enough so that the reader willingly suspends their disbelief. Today’s article and corresponding writing practice is all about throwing those rules out the window by writing about weirdos.

characters who are weirdos

 

The general consensus in writing for a modern audience is that subtlety and nuance are key to getting the reader on board with your story. This is true for many slice-of-life type stories, but not every story requires a delicate touch. There are entire genres dedicated to exploring the fantastic and weird, so why stay on the path of realism with your work?

There are many ways to get your freak flag flying on your pages, but we’ll start with how that works in characterization.

Weirdos Are Everywhere

When it comes to characters, writers are most often criticized because of the believeability of their characters. Taken at face value, that seems to mean that your characters should be the kind of people that you would find on the street or the bus or the subway or in your office or at school, and a lot of writers have somehow interpreted that to mean normal or average.

As a frequent public transit rider, I have to say to these writers: buses and subways are full of weirdos. (Share that on Twitter?)

In fact, offices and classrooms are full of weirdos, too. Have you spent any amount of time around children under the age of ten? And everyone has at least one story about a coworker who never wore shoes in the office, or who would inexplicably hoard Earl Grey tea from the break room at their desk, or who never wore deodorant.

How to Write Good Characters: Dig Into the Weirdness

Take this post as an affirmation to write your weird characters, and to really dig into that weirdness.

Make all of them residents of some alternate civilization where the Air Bud DVDs are a form of legal tender and Ashanti is a minor deity in their pantheon.

Give them a dialectal quirk that results in them adding the word “biscuit” to the end of all of their sentences.

Maybe you’ve got a serial killer who makes teapots out of their victims’ skulls.

The point is that reality is pretty rarely realistic, so there’s no reason to try to make your characters the beige version of “realistic”.

Can you think of someone you’ve seen or know personally who is a bona-fide weirdo (besides yourself, that is!)? What makes them so weird/fascinating? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and write about a person in a food/beverage establishment. Get weird with the customer and the service staff. Describe appearances, verbal and physical quirks, behavioral tics, and general demeanors as you create the conversation. Post your practice in the comments and be sure to check out the work of your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • Brian Sommers

    “What’ll ya’ have mam?”

    “Cheeseburger with the works and a Coke.”

    “Have that to ya’ in about ten minutes.”
    ***
    “Hear ya’ go, mam…mmmmm.. it’s very good”

    “What are you doing? What the….”

    “I’m mmmm just testing for ya’, think of it as quality control, yeah?”

    “That’s so gross. You just took a bite out of my sandwich.”

    “I know. Like I said, quality control mam.”

    “I don’t want that. I want a sandwich that doesn’t have a bite out of it. Oh my goodness this is so wierd.”

    “You callin’ me wierd? Quality control is wierd? Look mam, I’m just trying to run a quality food truck here, nothing more, nothing less.”

    “Yeah but…you shouldn’t be eatin’ other peoples food that you serve.”

    “Than how the crap am I suppose to maintain quality control? Huh? You tell me lady.”

    “Whatever, you’re hopeless.”

    • Mike Dykes

      Here we see a low-budget con artist (hardly the Fargo Gondorff or Jake Hooker of The Sting and The Sting II fame) whose obvert intention is to grab a bite of someone’s sandwich. His subvert intention is to extort the restaurant owner or close him down. THAT would make the conflict of the story more plausible. Let’s say the sandwich grabber has Mafia connections, but the restaurant owner also has connections.

      The plot thickens as we see a mob turf war brewing. So, the sandwich grabber is weirder yet, in that both mobs want him dead as he knows too much.

      Now, we have a story!

      • Or he could sincerely be a service provider obsessed with quality control, unaware of social etiquette, and a master in the mysterious science of bacteria transfer.

        Or he could be a food-a-holic, due to a very poor family life where food was shared, bite by bite, out of fairness and equity.

        Or he could have some beef with this particular customer and really want to weird her out.

        Or yep! He could be strategically playing for both sides in a ‘turf’ war. A sinister sandwich dealer.

        Endless ‘he could…’ Scenarios.

        Laughing now… Regards
        Dawn

        • Mike Dykes

          If anyone did that sort of thing in polite company the first thing he’d find would be a few outraged friends of the lady, who then practiced the world’s nastiest wrestling hold on him — I refer to the dreaded Lip Stretch. On the other hand, if he had a suitable motive (say the hostile takeover of a $1.2 million restaurant) then we see it’s worth the risk. If we’re just dealing with a kook then he gets his lips tied in a knot and heaved into the dumpster while the manager gets the customer another burger — on the house.

          People are only as weird as their motives — in this case strategic greed.

  • Hi Liz – what a terrific idea! We all have real quirks and particularities, so why not include them in our stories? As for the idea that most people are a little weird, I would ask that writers be cautious about not mistaking “weirdos” for people with legitimate mental health issues. In San Francisco, one, I was at a BART station waiting for the elevated train and sat next to the one man who was talking to himself, obviously suffering from a mental illness. No one else would come near us. There’s a difference between being “weird” and “quirky” and being mentally ill. I would just hope that your community of writers would not abuse or confuse the difference.
    Thanks for a great article!

    • Mike Dykes

      No one comes out of life unscathed. The longer you live the more scars you develop. Some are more painful than you want to remember but eventually you remember them, even if those memories intrude in the good life you made for yourself after going through hell on earth.

      Those who lived placid and pampered lives, call we who fought and suffered for THEIR freedom, “weirdos.” That isn’t because they never heard about what happened or why. It’s because pampered people lord it over those who gave them their freedom and got in with some of the coldest and nastiest professional ingrates on the paranoid left.

      Look at any pampered leftist in college on grandad’s VA college money. They’re always cutting class to go on some anti-American protest or other because it’s the latest college fad — as though grandad hadn’t seen the same thing fifty years before when they were protesting the Vietnam War — or idolizing “Hanoi Jane” Fonda because she was sexy (and has since become a disgusting fat-body).

      These people will graduate on their family’s money, then go to work for the VA, specifically brainwashed to hate Veterans enough to illegally deny them benefits — and feel no twinge of conscience about it.

      So the leftist with purple hair really IS the wierdo — but no one who has lived the life wants to read about purple haired leftists, let me assure you.

  • Mike Dykes

    “Jake, play some music,” asked Willie Struthers. He was an old timer at ‘The Powder Keg bar and Grill.’
    “Sure, if Edna says so. She picks up your tabs for beer and food but not for the juke box.”
    Willie sighed. He used his right hook to pull the string out of his front pocket where his wallet lived. He used his left hook to hold it down and extracted a five dollar bill with his right hook.
    “Anything but The Outlaws or Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
    “That’s my favorite music, Jake,” said Willie.
    Jake looked around, He and Willie were alone in the bar so he chanced it. He played ‘Green Grass and High Tides,’ and ‘Free Bird.’
    “Here’s to Company J, First Marines, Qua Trang,” said Willie.
    “Those were the days, huh?” said Jake. he put a long straw into Willie’s beer. “You had your hands and . . ..”
    “And you had your legs,” said Willie, looking at Jake’s wheelchair.
    “And you carried me out after I lost them in that tiger trap,” said Jake. “I never knew you lost your hands hauling me out of that hole.”
    They both went silent and cold when Huyen and Pappillon Tran entered the bar.
    Jake pointed to the sign and gave them a glower that would have frozen the Mekong River: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Underneath that in marking pen appeared, “Particularly NVA Gooks.”

    • Ok you got me because I’m an old school Skynrd fan. 🙂
      And Free Bird… Well I’ve taken many a long drive across desert country and under searing blue skies with that tune rattling out of my old cassette player.

      However I really enjoyed how you set the scene for those old Vietnam Vets with their war scars (and hooks), and brought the reminisce into modern day politics of race.

      Thanks, I enjoyed reading this.

      Dawn

      • Mike Dykes

        Alas, this is not a fictional account. I know both of these men and we really did face an old NVA guy with hs wife there trying to provoke something nasty for the “underground press” reporter standing outside trying to get something damaging on us. And incidentally, that was in the American Legion bar in Olympia, Washington. It wasn’t the first time Tran had come there trying to stir up something nasty for the local leftist paper, either.

        Talk about a rehash of the Tet Offensive . . ..

  • EndlessExposition

    Well this turned out much longer than planned. As always, reviews much appreciated.

    The boy was – unusual looking, to say the least. At least for a place like Saturn, Kansas, Millie thought to herself. Maybe in a big city like New York there were more people who dressed like that. At least she assumed so, as she’d never been to a big city. But in a little place with a population under a hundred and a main street one block long, this boy stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. The boy was young – roughly Millie’s age, seventeen – and had a slim freckled face. His hair was purple. Bright violet, and long as a girl’s, tied back with a ribbon. He wore a velvet jacket, corduroy leggings and high heeled boots. He sat by the window, the brightest spot in the dingy cafe, sipping the coffee he held in his left hand and fiddling with the brass watch in his right.

    Millie had never seen him before – obviously, he’d be hard to miss – and had no clue where he’d come from. She’d gotten to the café just now – ten minutes after school ended – to find him sitting by the window. She slipped behind the counter and put on one of three faded aprons, nudging Joe in the ribs as she did so. “Psst! Joe!”

    “Whaat?” he mumbled petulantly. Joe was tall, blond and handsome in a way that reminded Millie of the actors in her grandpa’s favorite Westerns. Though he was a year older than Millie, they’d been best friends for as long she could remember.

    “Who’s that by the window?”

    Joe shrugged. “I dunno. He came in at 2:30. Been here for about an hour.”

    “Did you get his name?”

    “Jesus Ann H. Christ, Mills! I gave the guy coffee, not the third degree.”

    “Alright, alright, geez!” Millie glanced over the counter. The boy hadn’t noticed their heated whispering. “I’ll get his name, then.”

    “Millie!” But it was too late. She approached the table, trying to look cheerful.

    “Can I get you anything else, sir?”

    He looked up, eyes wider than the moon. They were green. “Oh no, thank you, that’s quite alrighty. I’m just fine, me.” He had a strange kind of accent. He drew out his vowels longer than necessary and clipped his consonants perkily, with a light Celtic lilt under the whole thing. His words glittered like gold dust.

    • That’s a cute little story starter. Heaps of back story, setting, context, geography relationship with co-worker and Millie’s curiousity.

      I’d really like to know more out the quaint little purple-haired man.

      Thanks for sharing.
      Dawn 🙂

  • Ha ha that was fun. Just played for 15 mins.

    Weird

    Every time he took a sip he shuffled his chair to the left. I am not kidding. Seriously! Like real soon I could see he was going to run out of room. I’d heard about him from the morning shift but I’d never seen the guy. I couldn’t leave the counter. Bunny was head down and busting out expressos and cappuccinos, Carlos was neck deep in breakfast orders at the grill and the boss had popped out to the bank. Nobody had told me how to deal with this irregular regular.

    “Good morning. What can I get for you?” The tall skinny hippy called to me across the counter.

    “What. Hey. Maybe I could get something for you.” I smiled back, pulled the pencil from behind my ear and shaped up the order pad ready for action.

    “No man, I wanna help you. I wanna make your day shine. I wanna make your world sing. Let me – get you – some- thing.”

    “Tell ya what bro’, let me get you a coffee and you can do me a real big favour.”

    “My pleasure.” Tall hippy beamed a smile of broken teeth and cracked lips. Small crusts of old saliva flaked off to the side of his mouth. “What’ll it be then?”

    ” See that old fella over there, shuffling to the left, well he’s gonna run out of space reeeeaal soon right. You reckon you could just help him take a few shuffles to the right so he can realign his tea-sipping self.”

    “Hey man, no way. He’s my Pa. When he hits the wall he knows it’s over. It’s a sign. Like ya know, the end is nigh, kinda warning.”

    “You for real bro’? Like he measures his last slips, or he just takes the wall as it comes.”

    “He’s a wall man Bro. He takes it as it comes. When he’s finished I join him, yeah. I sit with him and together we shuffle back to centre.”

    Bunny called from behind the Barista. “No. 29. Wall. 1 flat white.”

    “Cheers Bun-bun.” Tall skinny hippy reached across the servery and grabbed his steaming white mug.

    “You all good?” Bunny asked without looking up, flicking the steam arm and wiping the spout.

    “Seriously on fire Bun. You?” Hippy licked his cracked lips and blew softly across the milky flat white surface.

    “Yeah man. Running on all motors on this fine day.”

    “Too cool, Bun-bun, too damn cool.”

    “Hey,” I said, butting in, “Looks like the old fella has hit the wall.”

    “Damn, I’ve gotta go. I’ve gotta get over there. He’s gonna loose it big time. I say biiiig time if I ain’t there like reeeeeal quick bro’. You’re new, yeah. You should’ve told me bro’. This could be trouble. This could be reeeeeeal biiiig trouble.”

    “Yeah sorry man. I’m new. I’m usually on nights. I’m just …”

    Tall skinny hippy had gone, he was taming his long shaking legs toward the corner.

    “Friggin’ weirdos.” Bunny muttered to herself.

    “Are they like regulars?” I smiled.

    “Yep. And that is as normal – slash – regular as it gets. Why d’ya reckon the boss took a quick exit to do the banking? Hey man the banks don’t open for another hour. He skipped out as soon as he saw the old fella reach his third shuffle.”

    “Why’s that then?”

    “Hey if the boss is here they make a big deal. Try and do him for spilled drinks, refills and dangerous walls. They threaten litigation, FDA, CIA, NYPD, Law and Order, Miami Vice. The whole damn crew.” Bunny laughed. “Welcome to mornings. Where it’s all shiny and new.” She winked. “Number 30. Pot plant. Double expresso topped up.”

    “Who on earth is pot plant?”

    “Ohh you’re in for a treat. Wait till you see this one.”

  • Hello. This has nothing to do with this post or even writing, but I was wondering if you would be so kind and include a ‘pin it’ button. I compile all writing-related material, including these awesome and informative posts here, into a specially formulated Pinterest board for such thing. It is sometimes very hard to pin anything from here and I have to fight with it to pin something and sometimes, I just simply cannot pin it. I don’t have a printer to print it out plus it costs money to save it as a PDF. It would be greatly appreciated. If you cannot, that’s fine. hank you. Please keep these great posts coming.

  • Cathy

    Joe schlepped into the café with his campus policeman shadow. The only reason he came into the café really, was to aggravate his campus policeman shadow. The only reason he had a campus policeman shadow was to aggravate Joe. The hope was that he would grow weary of his shadow and leave the campus.

    There always was the debate concerning Joe, was he mentally ill, or
    just a jerk? He seemed to be able to control his behavior, or at least to damp
    it down, when the campus police officer arrived. Librarians and information
    desk receptionists were typically his first line of offense. Whenever he
    entered their space, lobby or library, he started his routine and typically
    evoked tears of protest and frustration from the inevitably attractive victim.
    Occasionally he made it as far as the café.

    I was standing behind the salad bar when he came in. “Lucy, Lucy,” he said and leaned on the bar, his face pressed against the spit guard inviting me to address his conduct, to ask him, “Please, sir, step back from the glass.” I hate to say it but I took an odd pleasure in the fact that Joe had so deliberately selected me to harass today. He knew my name. He always only picked on the pretty girls. Everyone said that. And mixed
    with apprehension was pleasure at having been selected today by Joe.
    Kyle, the campus policeman assigned to shadow Joe today said, “Come on, Joe, stop touching the glass.” Everyone behind the grill and sandwich bar and customers on that end of the café turned silent to witness Joe’s response. Would he be trespassed today, or control himself?