Saturday, July 30, 2011

Real Life Diagnostics: Quirky Characters: Can You Relate?

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Note: There’s just one more submission in the queue after this, so it’s a good time to submit.

This week’s questions:
One of your guest posts was on the danger of quirky characters. One of the major characters in the mouse mystery I'm writing is very quirky, and I wanted to know if this makes him too hard to identify with. The snippet below is a bit of dialogue from the scene where my narrator (a mouse) meets my quirky character (also a mouse) whose name is Donovan. I'd like to know if Donovan comes across as likable, or if he's just confusing and irritating.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
"Have you ever directed a play before?" I asked.


"How about a skit at summer camp or something?" Please, please, please let him have some kind of experience.

"I've read all Shakespeare's plays," Donovan offered. "I sometimes mix up the plot of Cymbeline with A Winter's Tale and I always confuse Timon of Athens with Titus Andronicus but that's because they're both about Romans and start with T. I mean Romans and Greeks, or Athens would be in Rome, which is crazy. So is Coriolanus. Since we're doing Macbeth it won't matter."

Did this Donovan always talk in a breathless jumble, and did he always wave his paws and whip his tail around when he spoke? If his arms were tied to his sides by his tail, would he still be able to talk?

Wait- what had he just said about Macbeth?

"You mean A Midsummer Night's Dream," I corrected.

"No I don't."

"We always perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at the festival."

"Macbeth's the one with the three witches, right?" Donovan asked. "You know: `When shall we three meet again? In thunder lightening or in rain? When the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's lost and won' -like Louis Carrol. Hurly-burly, Jabberwocky. You think they'd have been friends?"

"The hurly-burly and the Jabberwocky?" A hurly-burly wasn't even a creature, it was just a clamorous confusion… kind of like the mouse talking to me right now.

"Carrol and Shakespeare. Because they both made up words."

"They didn't even live in the same time period."

"Yeah, but if they did."

My Thoughts in Purple:
Okies, this is a first. You’ll notice I have no thoughts in purple, because I saw nothing in the text to tweak. I liked it, it was strong, and I don’t have any suggestions to improve on a textual level. So I’ll just jump right to the questions.

The questions:
Is Donovan too hard to identify with?
It’s hard to tell from just this sample since it’s mostly dialog, but I tend to babble myself (especially when I get excited), so I can relate there. Going forward, what he wants, how he thinks, how he deals with things is what will make a reader click with him or not. If I understand why he’s like this and why he’s so jazzed about Shakespeare, I’ll likely get him. If he just babbles all the time and there’s nothing more to it than that, I might not be able to identify with him.

What age group this is targeted at will also determine how relatable he is.  With mice characters, this feels like it's aimed at younger readers, and if so, they might not get the references (I'm not up on when Shakespeare is taught anymore). If they don't understand what Donovan is talking about, it might make it tough for them to get what's going on.

My question for you, is do you need readers to identify with him? He’s not the POV character, and that’s who they really need to connect with. It’s okay if he’s a quirky character that makes readers laugh or shake their heads or whatever you want him to inspire. You don’t have to worry as much about quirky characters if they aren’t the POV. You have a built in filter for them between the POV and the reader.

Is Donovan likable, or if he's just confusing and irritating?
In this sample I don’t find him irritating at all, but if he was a major character and there were pages and pages of this I might. He is a bit exhausting to read, but I sense that’s the point, and it’s done well if it is. The confusion also fits the scene because that’s what he’s doing – confusing the narrator.

Donovan strikes me as a great example of the strong spice analogy. He’s funny, distinctive, memorable, but probably works best in small doses. Too much and he might overpower the rest of the story and wear the reader out. But since he’s not the narrator, you have distance from him so you can control how he’s used. I think it’s all going to depend on what you do with him and how he fits into the story. But so far, I’d say you’re good.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.


  1. Author here. Wow, you gave me a lot to think about, mostly that I need to make sure I give Donovan some quieter scenes to let his substance shine through.

    As for how important it is that Donovan be relatable- he's the Sherlock to my POV's Watson. If he grates on the reader, chances are that's what they'll remember about the book. It's been making me really paranoid, so thank you for the encouragement. Do you mind if I link this post to my blog?

  2. I really liked this excerpt. I found Donovan quite endearing and entertaining. But I agree with Janice that page after page (after page after page) of that type of rambling energy could be exhausting. Not necessarily irritating, but definitely exhausting.

    In saying that, if your narrator feels the same way, perhaps he edits out some of the rambling at times? Or if there's a quiet scene early on where Donovan's "substance shines through" so the reader can connect with the mouse-inside-the-rambling, that may be enough.

    Best of luck with it!

  3. Jo, that's a good idea to have my POV character do a bit of paraphrasing now and again. Thanks.

  4. Ah okay, gotcha. Well, Holmes was a jerk and folks still loved him, so you can make it work with Donovan (and he's not a jerk). Once you've established that Donovan talks like this, you can always ease up a little with him. Use the style as gentle reminders, give him smaller tidbits of the pattern to suggest he's still doing it, but it's not as hard to read. And trust your instincts. If it feels too much to you, it probably is, so trim back in those areas. And sure, link away :)

  5. Actually, I'm rather fond of Holmes.

    Tidbits of the pattern as a reminder... rather like the way Dickens introduces wacky characters, then eases up as you get to know them better. That's really effective -at least, it is when Dickens does it.

    Thanks for taking the time out to look at my piece.

  6. Another thing that has not been mentioned is that the narrator himself may start cutting off Donovan when his rambling gets too egregious, which would be a good way to remind the readers without fully indulging.

    It can also be played for drama if, say, he cuts Donovan off before he gets to something important.

  7. Maybe you can use what you love about Holmes and translate that into what's lovable about Donovan?

  8. I was gone for a week, and came home to some really good advice. I'm sure this thread is over, but I still wanted to say thanks.

    Katie, I really like the idea that failur to listen to Donovan's speals causing havoc later.

    Janice, what I love about Holmes is that he uses his arrogance and jerkiness as a mask for his inner softness. Every once in a while the soft core shows itself, despite his best efforts. It's not something I could steal for Donovan -he's too obviously soft hearted from the beginning- but I would love to steal it someday, when I find the right story and character.

    Thanks again for all your help and advice. You guys have gotten me past a really big writing block.

  9. You could also see if there's another aspect of him you could show that way. Maybe Donovan's rushed speech is due to a lack of self confidence or something. He speaks fast because he feels no one will listen to him unless he gets it all out there right away.