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Put simply, a motif is a distinctive repeating feature or idea; often, it helps develop other narrative aspects such as theme or mood. And this can be used to give instant depth to a character.
It's called an RCDT: a Recurring Character Development Theme.
I used this when I wrote Sneaky -- and pretty much every time I write a character I try to find these little things in them -- and you will probably be able to recognize what I'm talking about in a lot of things that you already know. I personally call them 'throwbacks' because it's easier for me to remember them when I'm writing, and if I think of them that way it almost feels like an inside joke or insider knowledge.
The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien) – “my precious”
Ocean’s Eleven – Rusty, Brad Pitt’s character, is eating in almost every scene
Sneaky (me) Daryl calls Eve, "swamp monster."
Silence of the Lambs – Hannibal Lector never blinks
Star Trek – Spock’s famous “Live long and prosper” gesture; or Bones’ “Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a [fill in the blank]”
You can probably already see how these things became part of the characters, and how your first thought when you hear or see similar things, your mind immediately recalls the character, and if anyone else in the story were to ask "who says or does [this thing]", you would know exactly who they were talking about even if no name was mentioned.
Little character quirks like this can help really establish a character, almost better than their personality does lol.
None of these things are vital to the plot of the story, but can you imagine any of these without them?
You can think of them as icing on the cake or the garlic bread to a spaghetti dinner; They're not necessary, but boy do they make it better.