Creating Quirky Characters by McGraw and McGraw #amwriting

SCORE! Robert and Darrin McGraw, authors of the Best. Book. Ever., have sent me a guest post about creating quirky characters.

Now, when I say that Mr. Brian, the “elevated” chimpanzee who is a bespoke tailor in the McGraws’ first novel, ANIMAL FUTURE, I don’t mean he’s quirky because he’s a chimpanzee. I don’t mean he’s quirky because he’s a bespoke tailor. He would be quirky if he were a human … I don’t know, what’s a regular job? A human bartender. A human librarian. Mr. Brian is not just a chimpanzee, or just a bespoke tailor, he’s a specific personality. Some of his quirks do come from his species — and beautifully done, those quirks are, too — and from his profession, although it’s more a matter of his having chosen his profession because of his particular abilities and interests.

But enough about my high opinion of the book. Let’s hear from the McGraws.

Creating Quirky Characters
by Robert and Darrin McGraw

Quirky characters add spice to a story and can also be used as a source of tension. In our science fiction novel, Animal Future, we began with the premise that in the near future, an unexplained phenomenon has caused some species to become intellectually elevated to the point that they are classified “provisional humans” and can hold down human jobs. Although our book is a humorous action-thriller, there is an important sub-text that asks: Suppose the “Elevation” actually occurred. How can two very different populations learn to get along with each other? In real life, this is a vitally serious question, and serious questions can often be asked most effectively when mixed with humor. That means our novel needs humorous characters.

We start with a chimpanzee character, but immediately we have a problem: chimpanzees wearing clothes are a cliché. We counter that by pushing it a step farther and making our chimp, Mr. Brian, even more “clothed” than a human would be. He’s a “bespoke” (custom) gentleman’s tailor with a deep knowledge of the fashion industry. Naturally, a high-end clothier like Brian wears high-quality suits, French cuff shirts , and silver cuff links. He speaks impeccable English and is unfailingly polite. We then put pressure on those traits when Brian and two humans, Autumn and Mack, go on the run from terrorists trying to kill them. Having to sleep in a zoo, go without showering, and sweat profusely while battling to stay alive will strain anybody’s fastidiousness and courtesy. This means conflict. Sometimes it’s Autumn and Brian in conflict with Mack; at other times it’s Brian and Mack in conflict with Autumn.

Brian also has to learn to appreciate the quirkiness of humans. Mack, a rough-edged but pragmatic spy with a wisecrack for every situation, thinks in divergent ways that don’t match Brian’s honest and conservative nature. This puts pressure on Brian to learn new ways to solve problems, which he does by learning to change his way of thinking.

Autumn, the Vietnamese-American policewoman who is fleeing with them, has her own quirks, among them an interest bordering on reverence for the cultural history of Vietnam (unlike the rest of her Westernized family, ironically). Brian, however, is an entrepreneur who looks very much to the future. As an “elevated” Provie, he has little sense of the history of his species, and therefore can’t understand or appreciate Autumn’s dedication to the past. We put pressure on this trait by having Brian switch identities with a chimp employee at the zoo. There Brian begins to see that it can be helpful to know how things worked in the past if you are trying to deal with the problems of the present.

As a chimpanzee, Brian has stupendous latent physical strength and aggression. Ironically, he has to be encouraged by the humans to get in touch with his ape side and be less cerebral and more physical. This leads him to take the actions that eventually make him a hero.

In short, in this example we build up the quirkiness of the character by

  • Making the character’s traits more extreme
  • Giving the character conflicting traits
  • Giving the character traits that go against the typical expectation
  • Placing the character in situations and with other characters who test or strain those traits

The next time you deal with a real life person whose quirkiness is irritating or downright maddening, just remind yourself, “Hey, I can use this in my next book!”

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Animal Future
(Book 1)

New Cover!
New Cover!

In this quirky, thoughtful, action-filled novel, a female cop, a well-dressed chimpanzee, and a spy are on the run from shadowy assassins armed with machine guns, drones, missiles, and two-inch fangs.

Since the mysterious Elevation of animal intelligence, San Diego has been flooded with immigrant animals and society has changed. Officer Autumn Winn wants to leave the Tactical Assault squad and become an expert on her Vietnamese heritage. But first she has to prove she’s not guilty of murdering her partner. To do that, she has to rescue the kidnapped wife of the chimpanzee tailor Mr. Brian.

In the process she is forced to cooperate with Mack Davis, a good-looking but smart-mouthed operative trying to stay alive long enough to retrieve his digital wristband with its vital data, and also discover the secret of a jade figurine he just transported from Singapore.

As they race to find Brian’s wife, the trio must navigate a colorful landscape of characters including a comical pair of ferrets; a wealthy human socialite; a chimpanzee paramilitary commander; and Urizen, the deranged king of underground intelligence in Southern California.

(Watch for Animal Future – Book 2 to be published in November.) [MA: WHEEEEEEE!]

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Author BIOs: Robert McGraw and Darrin McGraw

Robert McGraw has had several professions, but his most difficult job is convincing his wife he’s actually working even when he’s just staring out the window. He is the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles, as well as three books. Two of his television scripts won awards from the International Television Association.

A former professional symphony musician who spent several years playing for the Cape Town Symphony in South Africa, Robert has a Master’s degree in Education and completed the work (all but dissertation) for a Ph.D. in music. He also studied art at The Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town and creates visual art in a variety of styles. His works are represented in the collection of the International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Darrin McGraw grew up more or less in a succession of libraries. He is pleased to note that the New York Public Library has a McGraw Rotunda, though he cannot actually take credit for this. He graduated from Stanford University and earned a Ph.D. in English from UCLA. After working in online software development he served for eight years as the writing director of the Culture, Art and Technology program at UC San Diego.

Besides writing and reading he has many other interests including early music, alternative architecture, and woodworking. When scientists have finished cloning the woolly mammoth he has a few other extinct species to suggest, including Cleopatra and Dr. Samuel Johnson.


Aren’t they swell?

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Turn the most irritating person you know into a quirky character.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Creating Quirky Characters by McGraw and McGraw #amwriting

  1. Jane

    September 28, 2015 at 9:08am

    So…I haven’t finished Animal Futures, but I love it so far!
    I heartily endorse the McGraws’ take on future stuff, plus their comments about quirkiness.

    Unfortunately, Marian, I cannot write about the most irritating person I know.

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  2. Robert McGraw

    September 28, 2015 at 10:55pm

    Hi, Jane.
    When you say you can’t write about your most irritating person, I think I understand what you mean. (Wink, wink. I’m sure *I* must be someone’s irritating person, too.) However, maybe you can borrow bits and pieces.
    For example, in my forthcoming historical mystery, “Not Like Us,” one of the characters is a barber in a small village in the Arkansas Ozarks. I patterned him after my own grandfather, but since the main thing I remember about him is his dry, cynical sense of humor, I used that and took other personality traits from other people I have known. Then I combined them all all into one character (incorporating, of course, a lot of things totally fabricated from my imagination).
    So the bottom line is, while you can’t write about your most irritating person, you *can* keep a notebook (or whatever) where you jot down interesting traits of various people you meet. Then when you are creating a new fictional character, you can refer to your notes and think, “Ah, now *that* person I once knew had an interesting trait I can use for my new character.
    It’s all (as the saying goes) grist for the writer’s mill.
    Best of luck with your writing! :O)
    ~Robert McGraw

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    • Author
    • Jane

      September 29, 2015 at 9:11am

      Thanks for your helpful comments, RMcG.

      You see, I have a personal nemesis, on whom I waste enough thought and energy already. But you’re right. One of the quirky things she did as a toddler was to bite our other sister on the back. Exactly the spot where her son, also a toddler, bit the other sister a couple decades later. Too much weird karma misxed up there.

      So….that’s why I like fiction. You can make things come out to where they make some kind of sense.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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