When I was in high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Quiring whose legendary silliness I have mentioned one or twice before on this blog.
For example, he once removed his necktie and unbuttoned his shirt during class to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the Batman logo. (He wasn’t really Batman, sadly.) At various times, Mr. Quiring pelted me with chocolate, brandished a meat cleaver and leaped off a chair shouting “To infinitives and beyond!”
The reason Mr. Quiring’s antics amused me so much is that he is not a silly person. Quite the contrary: Mr. Quiring is one of the most intelligent, dignified gentlemen I have ever known. It’s as though he compressed all the humor and silliness of ordinary people into short, intense bursts. Every time he did something outrageous, he reverted immediately afterward to his solemn self.
Mr. Quiring provides fine examples of endearing quirks: those funny little habits of real people or fictional characters that make us love them.
Some fictional characters are simply masses of endearing character quirks. Wooton Bassett, the mailman from Adventures in Odyssey, has too many odd habits to count: collecting fast food toys, expressing his feelings by the color of his slippers, baking jellybean casseroles and exiting his house via a slide. Wooton is fully capable of thoughtful introspection, but he’s mostly just hilarious.
Some characters are less silly, balancing funny quirks with tragic flaws or struggles. Consider the Doctor from Doctor Who and Vash the Stampede from Trigun. The Doctor is an intergalactic goofball, bouncing around the universe with a beaming face and a slew of witty remarks. Vash is a gunslinger who obsesses over doughnuts, whines like a child and walks into a firefight with a trashcan lid on his head.
Vash and the Doctor seem sillier than Wooton, but their quirks mask profound inner turmoil. The Doctor despises himself. His travels throughout space and time are not a careless vacation, but his way of running away from past mistakes. Vash also has a lot to hide. The body beneath the overcoat is covered in horrific scars, and the man behind the goofy grin is tormented by regret for the lives he couldn’t save.
In the case of Wooton, endearing quirks are a form of comedy. The quirks of Vash and the Doctor serve a different purpose. Their odd habits hide sad struggles, and make the viewer feel more when their stories take turns for the tragic. After all, it’s easier to feel sorry for funny characters than for serious ones.
Then there is Miles Edgeworth, the friendly rival of Phoenix Wright from the Ace Attorney series. Like Mr. Quiring, Edgeworth is dignified, composed and intelligent.
Edgeworth also has a secret.
This respected prosecutor is secretly a fan of Steel Samurai, a cheesy show for kids about a futuristic warrior and his neverending fight for justice. Edgeworth vehemently denies liking the show, of course… but there’s his inexplicable knowledge of Steel Samurai trivia and the Steel Samurai action figure in his office.
In the case of super-serious people like Mr. Edgeworth, a single quirk can make a cold, distant character seem a little more human. Liking Steel Samurai is a weakness, but not a sin. We can respect Edgeworth, and we can also laugh at him.
Carelessly loading a character with endearing quirks is a mistake: too many odd habits, or quirks that seem out of place, are irritating. Used intentionally, however, endearing quirks can develop great characters—and make us laugh!