Character mannerisms – the things people repeatedly do with their faces, hands, or voices without always realizing – help to create detailed characters. Sometimes we use mannerisms for humour, at other times to tell characters apart. Read tips for creating mannerisms, believable quirks and tics, that tell your reader more about your characters:
First, what is a mannerism?
What do we mean when we talk about a person’s ‘mannerisms’? We mean the unconscious gestures, verbal oddities or expressions that people make. Not everyone has particularly noticeable mannerisms, but when people repeat actions, sayings or expressions often, these things stick in our minds.
Examples of mannerisms:
- Old-fashioned sayings a character likes to use (e.g. ‘She didn’t say boo or baa’ meaning another person is quiet or reserved)
- Gestures they repeat often (such as running a hand through one’s hair or fidgeting with a necklace when anxious)
- Ways of speaking (such as pronouncing certain words strangely by habit) that stand out
So how do you use mannerisms to create richer, more detailed characters? [You can also brainstorm character details in the Now Novel dashboard.]
1. Use characters’ mannerisms to convey self-image
Read over these sentences:
- Greta walked across the room.
- She strode across the room, looking down her nose at the assembly on either side of her.
- She shuffled across the room, eyes downcast, fidgeting with a fraying hem.
Notice how in each of these sentences, the exact same thing happens: a woman goes from one side of the room to the other. But in each one, we get an entirely different picture of what is happening.
The first sentence is neutral. It doesn’t convey any character information to us at all. While it’s not the most interesting sentence in the world, sometimes we really do just need to get a character from one side of the room to the other. However, too much getting across rooms and going upstairs (without any immediate characterization or purpose) can become boring.
The second two sentences show mannerisms. A haughty character may appear to look around at others with an ingrained sense of superiority. The second sentence suggests Greta’s pride and confidence. The Greta of the third sentence is her opposite. Her mannerisms – her fidgeting and avoidance of eye contact – may suggest fearfulness and shame.
Adding the occasional mannerism to a character’s actions helps the reader develop an understanding of your character’s personality.
One reason using mannerisms is useful in describing characters is it helps you avoid blunt telling:
2: Use mannerisms to avoid telling and not showing
‘Show don’t tell’ is an often abused instruction we’ve spoken about before. There are instances where telling is entirely necessary (such as in condensed exposition where the reader doesn’t need to see every minute detail).
Yet telling the reader about your characters and their feelings is widely considered weak character description. It holds the reader at a further remove from the action, instead of showing it unfolding.
Remember the description’s of ‘Greta’s crossing’ above. The following alternatives are much weaker:
- Greta walked across the room, feeling proud and strong.
- Greta walked across the room, feeling small and ashamed.
Unlike the first set of sentences, these sentences tell rather than show. We don’t have a mental image of the character, but rather a catalogue of facts about her emotional state.
A scene where we see the signs that tell us a character is, for example, feeling proud and strong, is often more satisfying. Because subtler signs and giveaways build up to tell us what we need to know. They allow us to do the ‘work’ of reading. The work of seeing signs, putting them together, and making our own minds up about what they could mean about characters.
A key function of mannerisms is to make characters distinctive:
3. Use mannerisms to tell your characters apart
Think of people you know. Are there any habitual phrases they use, faces they pull?
For example, a person might always smile almost exaggeratedly when we meet them, giving us the impression they’re insincere. Yet the same facial expression could simply be a trait inherited from a parent. These small differences in the way people do or say similar things create personality.
Using mannerisms to show oddities
People’s oddities – the strange or unusual things they do and say – often set them apart from others. For example, in a swashbuckling adventure about knights set in Arthurian times, it might be normal for a man to kiss a lady’s hand extravagantly in meeting. However a modern-day college frat-boy who does the same to girls on campus might seem strange. He may come across as an old-fashioned, oily charmer.
Something as simple as the volume of a character’s speech can make them odd or distinctive. Indeed, in her novel The Secret History, Donna Tartt gives her character Bunny Corcoran a ‘loud, honking’ voice that adds to his annoying quality.
Create personality using mannerisms
One way to tell your characters apart and make them distinctive is to give them contrasting mannerisms. For example, a friendly, bubbly character might hug their friends by default, whereas a reserved character might proffer a stiff handshake. How does your character typically respond in certain situations? For example, if someone gives them a gift, do they rattle it around mid-air, theatrically listening to work out what’s inside? Or scurry away and hide it to open later, like a squirrel hiding acorns for winter?
Think of personality traits and the list of mannerisms that tend to go with them for example, the following mannerisms tend to go with the following personalities:
- Shyness/social awkwardness: Avoiding eye contact, sticking to the edge of the room in crowded places, signs of nervousness such as fidgeting, blushing
- Fearlessness/bravery: Always being near the front in a group, talking loudly (even in a dangerous, otherwise hushed setting)
- Dreamers: Gazing unfocused into the distance, rambling (in speech), being easily distracted
- Being fearful or anxious: Fidgeting, trying to slip by unnoticed, sweating, jiggling a leg or foot
This is just a partial list of mannerisms that suggest personality.
4. Show views and values through mannerisms
Mannerisms also give readers valuable information about who a character is. When we describe characters’ mannerisms in their interactions, the reader might get a sense of how one type of character views another type. For example, an older person who sees their younger relatives as children might pat them on the head even when they’re fully grown adults. The paternal behaviour in this mannerism may suggest they don’t see younger people in wholly accurate terms.
Imagine a star quarterback on a college football team. Picture him approaching a girl at a local bar. What do his mannerisms suggest about his view of women, or his sincerity? Perhaps a player who is aware of the power of his star player status, for example, lays on a thick layer of charm. How does he move? What stock pick-up lines might he use? Mannerisms are also a fundamental part of how we communicate.
5. Use mannerisms to reveal motivations
The old saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ is true when it comes to mannerisms. Often, mannerisms are giveaways, the ‘telltale hearts’ that cut through the pretense of a person’s words.
For example, perhaps a salesperson who has to make commission is all smiles and charm, but the character dealing with him notices his eyes keep flicking to the dotted line where they are expected to sign. The salesperson’s craving for a signature could reveal that they see the customer as just a meal-ticket, even if their demeanour is friendly. Mannerisms are useful for revealing subtext and motivations this way – the unspoken desires and intentions characters might not share with each other explicitly.
Mannerisms are so useful that the temptation may arise to use them at every opportunity. But avoid this. Some mannerisms border on cliché and should be used sparingly. In real life, people sometimes do raise an eyebrow in surprise. Yet if your character’s eyebrows are doing a practical tango every other page, your reader might tire of this, and wish they could shave them off!
6. Avoid over-using mannerism clichés
When describing characters’ mannerisms, make sure that you describe things that real people actually do. Some clichés come from stage-acting traditions, where actors had to be exaggerated in their gestures for the back row.
For example, when was the last time you actually saw someone wring their hands? If you think about it, people rarely narrow their eyes in suspicion. Beware odd or unfamiliar gestures as well. Instead focus on believable gestures with a physiological or psychological basis. For example, a character who keeps stretching and yawning may be bored or tired.
Stephen King famously called out a writer for the line “His eyes slid down her dress“. Avoid unintentional hilarity and body parts taking on a life of their own, performing impossible acts.
Need help developing interesting characters and mannerisms? Get How to Write Real Characters for practical examples and exercises to create detailed, developed characters.