Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Why Every Character Should Have a Zoo Hat

I'll be the first to tell you that characters are my writing weakness. I'm what's called a plot-first novelist, meaning that I typically come up with a plotline for a story before I come up with characters. As a result, my characters often behave erratically and feel, well, flat. 

And that's why every character needs a zoo hat.

First, let me give you a little background (because you're probably really confused right now).

For the past several summers, I've volunteered at a local zoo. I'm now employed by them (no, I don't feed the lions, but I do get to work with some really ornery goats). Since I sunburn easily, I typically wear hats whenever I'm outside.

So, my first summer as a volunteer, I got a ball cap. I wore it every day to the point where it was faded out.

Last summer, I worked at a different job and took the summer off from the zoo. When I came back this year as an employee, hardly anybody recognized me. It took me a while to figure out why.

Then it clicked--I wasn't wearing my hat anymore. Everyone had identified me by my hat.
The wolf hat I wore nearly every day I volunteered. It's not quite the shade of blue it used to be, but I still wear it!

Now what does this have to do with characters?

Every major character should have some trait that makes them easily recognizable and unique.

For example, one of the characters in my WIP drinks coffee in excess. If she just drank coffee, she'd still be rather flat. So she has other character traits (she's an impatient doctor who's hiding something and doubts her faith, to name a few things). But, her coffee habit makes her feel real. It's a quirk; something that makes her stand out from the other characters, just as I stand out at work because few of my coworkers wear hats. Another type of "hat" would be Linus (from The Peanuts/ Snoopy) and his blanket. He wouldn't be Linus without the blanket.

Linus and his security blanket, from http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/Linus'_security_blanket

Of course, they can't all wear hats--or else that would cease to be a quirk. Nor can that be their only trait. There are other traits that make me "me" at work--what jobs I like to do, pet phrases, character flaws, etc. Each character should have a unique combination of those as well as his or her "hat".

Small details--the "hats"--rarely affect the plot of the story. But these unique characteristics make the characters more life-like.

Don't be afraid to allow character quirks (as well as the character's overall personality) to change throughout the course of your writing. As long as the reader can see why it changed and the change is still in keeping with the nature of the character, change is a good way to show character growth. This is a close call; you don't want to make your character completely new to your readers, but you don't want them to stagnate, either. Perhaps your character adds a new picture to her locket (while still keeping the old picture of her parents in there). Or after his house burning down with his favorite book inside, your character finds a new favorite book that speaks to him more after his trials. Or perhaps they just
get a new hat, like me:

Any questions? What quirks do your characters have? In a book you've read, what's your favorite character quirk?


  1. Yes, I love your character's coffee obsession! That's actually a good point, I've never really thought about it like that. Zoo hats are great.

    That is so cool that you work at a zoo! Is that something you want to do for a career or do you just enjoy it as a part time job? I would love to work at a zoo but I'm afraid that I wouldn't be very good at it.

    My characters, hmmm... One of my characters runs his hands through his hair when he's nervous or upset, and his clothing style is rather, um, unique :)

    1. My job is currently part time and is more related to working with the public than with the animals. Once my degree is completed, I would be open to taking a full-time job. In that case, it would be related to my degree and I would be working more closely with the animals. But that's a few years down the road yet.

      Ooh...sounds interesting about the clothing. I have a habit of running my hands through my hair when I'm concentrating, so I can totally associate with the crazy hair that results!


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