One of the most common pieces of advice about writing is that you should show, not tell. Describing character mannerisms is an excellent way to show the reader information about your character in a subtle and interesting way.
Take a look at these sentences:
- Greta walked across the room.
- Greta strode across the room with her head held high.
- Greta shuffled across the room, staring at the floor.
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, and doesn’t reveal any 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 without any distractions.
The next two demonstrate the degree to which mannerisms can change the information that we get about a character and a scene. In the second sentence, Greta is a woman in charge, confident and proud. The Greta of the third sentence is her opposite. Lacking confidence, perhaps even ashamed, we imagine that she barely makes it across the room.
Now, consider how much stronger and more vivid sentences two and three above are than these sentences:
- 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. As with our very first sentence above in which Greta did nothing more than walk across the room, sometimes we simply do need to quickly tell the reader a piece of information and move on. But more often, we want to bring the reader into the scene as intimately as possible. Furthermore, not every character in a scene or a story is a viewpoint character. Often, we must surmise what other characters are thinking or feeling from the point of view of another character, and it would be jarring to be told what the non-viewpoint character was feeling. Mannerisms are a useful way of revealing that information without breaking the consistency of point of view.
Mannerisms can also be used to make a character distinctive. These might be affectations or they might be unconscious. For example, you are sending very different signals to your reader if your nineteenth-century European count bends to kiss ladies’ hands on meeting them versus having a modern-day college student behave in the same manner. A character might habitually fumble with a pipe while thinking, take up knitting when nervous or hum a particular tune when content. These can be effective ways of making a character seem more familiar as well as distinguishing characters from one another if you are dealing with a large group. The trick is to make sure that the mannerism is not too distracting or difficult to describe.
In addition to identifying a character by quirks like humming or fumbling with a pipe, mannerisms can also deliver more valuable information about who a character is. We need only take a look at our two Gretas crossing the room above to see how this is the case. Mannerisms can also reveal information about relationships between two characters. Consider these sentences:
- Alice patted Marvin on the head.
- Alice shook Marvin’s hand.
- Alice hugged Marvin.
These mannerisms could also tell us something a bit different than about the relationship between the two however. They could also tell us something about Alice particularly if her mannerism is somewhat inappropriate in the context of the situation. If she’s patting Marvin’s head and Marvin is not a child, then something seems a bit off about that situation. If she is shaking Marvin’s hand, we assume a formal relationship; if we know or learn that Marvin is her brother, we may think of them as somewhat estranged or at least as not sharing a typical casual sibling relationship. If Alice is Marvin’s boss, a hug will likewise be unexpected and tell us that there is either something not quite appropriate in their relationship or perhaps that Alice crosses physical boundaries with people that she should not.
Along similar lines, mannerisms can reveal character motivations in contrast to what the character is saying. Perhaps a character is pretending to be intrigued by a conversation but keeps glancing down at her phone. Maybe a character is trying to appear at ease but can’t stop twisting a napkin into pieces. What might you as a reader surmise if a character who is shouting and seems angry is also trembling or if someone is laughing and smiling while curling her nails tight into the palm of her hand?
Mannerisms are so useful that the temptation arises to overuse them. It’s important to avoid this. Furthermore, some mannerisms border on cliché and should be used sparingly. In real life, people sometimes do raise an eyebrow in surprise or turn dramatically on hearing shocking information, but make sure that your characters are not doing these things more than once or twice in the course of your novel.
Actions like shrugging and nodding are more common, but writers who aren’t careful can find their characters shrugging and nodding their ways through entire books. Such mannerisms often become crutches for writers, and many writers have one or two of these they tend to use too much. Careful fellow readers and good editors can help point these out to you so you can watch for them and try to avoid them.
Another trap to avoid in writing about mannerisms is making sure that you are describing things that people actually do or that are physically likely or possible. Some of these arise from clichés as well. When was the last time you actually saw someone wring their hands? If you think about it, people rarely narrow their eyes or rake a hand through their hair in despair either. People don’t wince much unless something is actually tossed at their face. Beware of odd or unfamiliar gestures as well. What do you think when you read about someone undulating? Even if you know what it means, your reader may not, and it’s still a word that draws attention to itself rather than continuing to immerse the reader in the world of the story.
Gestures can backfire as well when they are poorly described. Stephen King famously called out a writer for the line “His eyes slid down her dress,” but the fact is it’s easier to get tangled up in your own sentences than you’d think. Avoid unintentional hilarity and suggestions that body parts have taken off with a life of their own or begun to perform impossible acts.
Another aspect writers should keep in mind when discussing mannerisms is whose point of view the reader is in. Most modern fiction is written in some variation of a limited third person point of view which means that at any given time we are only in the head of one character. Keep in mind that the viewpoint character in a scene will not perceive his or her own mannerisms in the same way onlookers will. He or she will not see various facial expressions and will not notice his or her own unconscious mannerisms. Even conscious mannerisms will not be observed in the same way as they would be by another; think about how you perceive your own mannerisms versus how you react to someone else’s.
Sometimes, a novel will be written from an omniscient viewpoint meaning that the writer has access to all the viewpoints of all the characters although this is less common in contemporary fiction than it was in the past. In this case, anyone’s mannerisms can be observed. Some scenes may also bounce between the viewpoints of two or more characters although this should be done sparingly. In this case, when a mannerism is described, it’s important to establish the viewpoint from which it is being observed. For example, let’s say we’re at a party and we are switching back and forth between the viewpoints of Rosie and Stuart. If we’ve just been in Stuart’s head, and now we want to say something about Stu’s nervous tic, we need to pop back into Rosie’s head to let the reader know who’s observing this: “Rosie got up for another glass of wine and noticed Stu’s leg jiggling incessantly.”
Mannerisms can be a powerful tool for revealing information about characters, but they have to be used carefully.
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