David Bowers discussed a while back the idea of quirks, and his article remains as good a place as you could ever find to get the basics of the idea. Quirks are the odd little elements of a character; the things that make them unique and often, a little strange. I firmly believe that everyone has their quirks and that we all are, indeed, a little strange. There is no character in any roleplaying game ever that shouldn’t have a few quirks. But the question is: Will it blend?
That is, will it blend in with how you see your character?
Quirks carry the danger of derailing role-play; the quirk that you intend to highlight one aspect of your character instead reflects a completely different truth about them that you never intended or even wanted. A surprising example of this comes from the wonderful Australian show The Gruen Transfer. Todd Sampson, the CEO of advertising company Leo Burnett Australia told a story about one of his advertisements for ski yogurt about a very quirky character indeed; he was a tall, gawky person who asked came up to young women out of the blue and asked them meaningless questions, enthusing over their non-committal answers (“What are you reading?” “Um, a paperback…” “Yeeeaaah! Paperback!”) while looking for the perfect chance to steal their cup of yoghurt. The advertisement was a huge failure, actually costing Ski Yoghurt sales. The problem Sampson identified was simple; while the creators of the advertisement saw a funny, quirky character, the target audience for the product instead saw a stalker. They misunderstood their target market, and how they would interpret their character.
So let’s take a lesson from this and discuss how to make quirks work: Know your audience. This is perhaps the golden rule of all role-playing. Your audience creates the context of the role-play; one set of dialogue in a pick-up scene with someone you just met in a city has a very different tone to that with a long time friend. I tend to argue that quirks should actually be muted in first role-playing scenes with a new partner, then ramped up as they start to trust you more and understand what your intended character is. This should, in theory, reduce misunderstandings. Unfortunately, the problem is that the reverse is usually true: Bereft of a central plot-line to play off between your characters, the quirks take hold as a way to make the role-play distinct.
Make sure your quirks match your intended character type. This is a really difficult thing to do; as any quirk you introduce could indicate a few things depending on how you do it. Let’s say you want to create a heroic crusader for justice; a paladin who deeply believes in saving the world and all its people. You have him charge into combat before the rest of the party is ready, yelling “For the Light!” as you do so. While your goal was to show him as concerned and eager to do good, the party sees him instead as impatient and reckless, a danger hound. Why? Because you’ve again misunderstood your target market. You see a determined push into the line of fire; they see the stupid twit who’s mucking up their battle plans again, forcing the DPS into mistakes and the healers into running out of mana.
Or maybe you make a young farm-girl who displayed surprising talent in magic, and came to ‘the big smoke’ (Stormwind, in this case) to learn the arcane arts. She reflects her Westfall upbringing with lots of homespun wisdom, (“My mama always said that a forgotten window lets in an ill wind.”) You intend this to show how your character is grounded, not the typical abstract-minded wizard but a girl of considerable folksy wisdom. And some others out there may see this; but some others instead might start talking down to her, treating her like a child. Why? Because her constant deference to others wisdom and her references to her parents make her seem simple, childlike, and maybe even a little stupid.
It’s important to note that your interpretation and their interpretation are both correct: Your quirk reflects both truths. What makes this truth or that truth come to the surface is the context. To control the context, and to make quirks work, you need to understand your audience. Work to do so.